By Ikedi Ohakim
I adopted the title of this tribute from one of the numerous late icons books entitled, “BEFORE I DIE…” a collection of letters he exchanged with General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1989, over the social, economic and political stability of our country and went ahead to wish that they would be resolved before he completes his sojourn on earth. The question that came to my mind upon the passing on of this great Nigerian was, how many of those issues were resolved as he had wished before his exit.
It is needless to begin to enumerate the various issues in this short tribute but it cannot be gain said that save for the matter of ending military rule, none of the issues that have bedeviled our dear country, Nigeria, and on which the late writer churned out voluminous literature, has been resolved.
As a writer, there was virtually no topic on which Nwankwo did not write a book on. In fact, it was said if him that if you wrote an article that was critical of his point of view on any issue, Arthur Nwankwo would give you on a book in response. His publishing outfit, Fourth Dimensions, at a point and for a long time became the citadel of scholarly publications on virtually every topic both within and outside Nigeria.
Besides Before I Die…, Nwankwo had to his credit other seminal works that included Biafra:The Making of A Nation (1969;, Nigeria:The Challenge of Biafra (1972); Nigeria: The Stolen Billions (1999); Season of Hurricane (1993); Retreat of Power: The Military In Nigeria’s Third Republic (1990); Nigerians As Outsides: Military Dictatorship And Nigerian’s Destiny; Nigeria: The Political Transition And the Future of Democracy (1993); Reckoning At Storm End (1993); The Day of The Long Shadow (2002); Nigeria: My People My Vision (1979); African Possibility In Global Power Struggle (1995), On the Brink of Disaster (2000); Incarnation of Hope (1993) etc.
Of course, the common thread in all of these works was a vehement avowal to the end of dictatorship, whether military or civilian, on the African continent.
Thus, Arthur Nwankwo’s activism against military rule in African in general and Nigeria in particular went beyond mere sloganeering. He backed it with scholarship by expousing, through his books, ideas and principles that would entrench democracy and a permanent end to injustice and opression of the less privileged by the wealthy elite.
As expected, Arthur Nwankwo saw the red eyes of the authorities in the course of his activism. His first brush was with Chief Jim Nwobodo in 1979, who was then the governor of the old Anambra state. Nwobodo was said to have seized a land that belonged to Nwanlkwo ostensibly for use by the state government. Nwankwo took the matter to court and while the matter was still pending, he wrote a book entitled, “How Jim Nwobodo Rules Anambra State” The Nwaobodo administration felt maligned by the book and took Nwankwo to court where he was charged for sedition. He was convicted and jailed but on appeal, Nwankwo won and through that a major national issue was resolved; namely that sedition law should be removed from the criminal code because it ran coutrary to the constitution. That was how sedition was expunged from our laws and why Nigerian journalists and commentators, generally, no longer get charged with sedition.
In June 1998, Arthur Nwankwo, who along with other activists particulaly in the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), of which he was vice chairman, constituted a pain in the neck of the Sani Abacha regime, was arrested and detained. However, Abacha was to die a few weeks later and Nwankwo regained his freedom. On the commencement of another transition to civil rule following the death of Abacha, Nwankwo aligned himself with the Alliance for Democracy (AD) rather than the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Peoples Party(APP) where nearly every Igbo political leader were converging. He later founded the Eastern Mandate Union (EMU) which was a precussor to the Peoples Mandate Party (PMP) on whose platform he ran the 2007 president election.
Although he lost, he continued to nurture the party and its parents body, (EMU), of which he was Chancellor, until his death last February. Beyond national and International reputation, I have a personal relationship with the late veteran writer, author and politician. Unknown to many, we were partners in the maritime business long before I ran for the office of governor of my state, Imo; and I can state without any fear of contradictions that some of the attributes that have helped me in both business and politics are things that I learnt from him. Methodic and thorough, Dr. Nwankwo had zero tolerance for sharp practices of whatever dimension. He was stickler to excellence and did not suffer fools gladly.
Let me close by going back to the book, “Before I Die…” from to demonstrate that Arthur Nwankwo had an uncommon attitude and courage to the Nigerian debate: The 219-page book was in response to an earlier one by General OlusegumObasanjo in 1989 entitled, “Constitution for National Integration and Development”. In the seven-chapter book, Obasanjo propagated a one-party state as opposed to the then President Ibrahim Bebangida administration’s proposal for a two-party system. But Nwankwo engaged Obasanjo, challenging him on why he did not affect his proposals during his administration which he, Nwankwo, described as a “regency”.
Below are except from the book which was a collection of exchanges between the two. Nwankwo wrote: “My dear General, you have no doubt brought your enormous experience to bear on your discourse and positions in the book. I, however, feel that a critique at this stage will serve a patriotic purpose as it would subject your views and arguments to a dialectical process from which should emerge, one way or another, something which should be to the greater benefit of our nation, Nigerian”.
He wrote further: “Olusegun Obasanjo’s book is premised on the thesis that an inherently obnoxious man could be made good by a constitutional declaration of pious intentions without a corresponding emphasis on the material foundation of constitutional declaration”
In a response, Obasanjo wrote intalia: “Utilizing a Marxist methodology to profer a critique of work informed and instructed by a non-Marxist paradigm is a form of mental laziness and the avoidance of a vigorous and balanced mental exercise”
Apparently finding some of the words used by Obasanjo unpalatable, Nwankwo fired back: “If I utilized a Marxist methodology to profer a critique of your work not informed and instructed by Marxist methodology, it is not a form of laziness. On the contrary, it might indeed by a form of mental laziness to imply that only works informed by Marxist praxis should be criticized by Marxist methodology. You may find my methodology unacceptable to you that is. But that is your entitlement. It does not make me lazy”.
Again Obasanjo wrote back: “I find it repugnant to expend time and materials on a non-predicative past time as …. debates …. I am not averse to constructive criticisms, what revolts me is a criticism undertaken from a rigidly jaundiced view point… The belief in the non-workably of my proposals to my mind stems from a deep scaled obstinacy … obstinacy I do not appreciate extreme and pejorative metaphors I abhor”.
The exchanges went on and on and reverberated through a frenzied polity but not before Nwankwo surmised as follows: “Before I die, I will remain a critical visionary of the imperatives of Nigerian politics and a purveyor of the desiderata of the Nigerian conditions. It is in relation to these that I shall always speak my mind without caring whose ox is gored”.