On December 27 last year, I was at Isunjaba in Imo State to celebrate with my friend Professor Ebere Onwudiwe as his community honoured him with a chieftaincy title. Before I left Lagos I debated with myself whether it was wise to travel at that busy period, when COVID-19 was displaying its fangs very ferociously, when many Igbos would be making their annual end-of-year pilgrimage to their villages and causing congestion and madness everywhere. I also thought about the idea of a chieftaincy title for Ebere, a fiercely republican intellectual, and wondered what propelled his community to offer it and him to accept it.
I wasn’t aware whether Ebere had built a school, a hospital or a road for his community, but I knew that he had polished the path of some young people in Imo State and Nigeria on their quest for higher education. I wondered whether his exertion in that area was enough for him to merit the favour of an honorary chieftaincy title. The chieftaincy institution in Nigeria has been afflicted by the virus of money-for-hand-back-for-ground, which has made it possible for the honorific that accompanies conferment to adorn the necks of both the deserving and the undeserving. The auctioneering process has brought vulgarity to an institution that ought to be better respected than it is today. But there are exceptions.
However, I resolved all doubts in favour of attending it, fully equipped with appropriate COVID-19 conditionalities. It was at the conferment ceremony that I realised that Ebere was being honoured as a man of ideas. That thrilled me and gave me the confidence that I was attending the ceremony for the right reason.
I first met Ebere at an international conference in November 2000 at Ohio University, United States. The organisers had invited me to present a paper on News Media, Public and Democratisation in Africa. Professor Wole Soyinka was the keynote speaker. A few other Nigerians such as Dr. Kayode Fayemi, now Governor of Ekiti State, Chief Clement Ebri, former Governor of Cross River State, Professor Julius Ihonvbere, former Secretary to Edo State Government, Professor Okon Akiba, who was teaching Political Science at a University in Canada, and Professor Ebere Onwudiwe, who was professing in the Department of Behavioural Science at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.
For us Nigerians who had just been admitted into the portals of democracy after many years of iron-fisted military rule, there was both a sense of excitement as well as a sense of foreboding. Would we get it right this time or not? Would our democratic experiment flourish or fail like a cook-book cake? The discussion at the conference was animated and even more animated after the conference.
Ebere graciously invited me to spend a day or two with him before heading back to Nigeria. I accepted the invitation and we used the opportunity well, filling the gaps in each other’s knowledge about Nigeria, Africa, America and the world of books. It was then that I knew that Ebere was both an economist and a political scientist but with political science as the dominant and domineering partner. I felt the invigorating depth and breadth of his knowledge during those two days we spent together and categorised him as a man of ideas.
He had spent about 30 years in America contributing seminal articles to The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles and The International Herald Tribune. I thought Nigeria needed him more than America did and asked him to come back to Nigeria. He came back to Nigeria, stayed for a short time and disappeared. I thought he went back to America. It was when I went for an African Union (AU) conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that I saw him there. He was surprised to see me there, where he was working as a governance consultant for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). I told him: “You can run but you can’t hide, come let’s get back to Nigeria.”
Eventually, he came back. Since he came back, he has pushed his ideas in various Nigerian newspapers and wrote a regular column for Newswatch magazine. He has delivered lectures at various American universities, including Stanford and Harvard. He has 12 books to his name on Nigeria and Africa.
In my contribution to a book that was to be published at his 60th birthday some years ago, I said of him: “Ebere is a man with a fertile imagination whose ideas pour out in torrents. He is gifted with ready wit and an easy sense of humour. He is a master raconteur, a man who lights up a room when he steps in, bubbling and bringing with him more than a spark of conversation electricity. But he does not suffer fools gladly. When fools behave as they do, foolishly, he is quick to show how empty they are, which is why they are making such a loud noise.”
I also said in that write-up that “Ebere is a Nigerian original. Despite his long stay in the United States, his spoken Ibo is fluent. He can speak it as smoothly as the trader at Ariaria market in Abia State. He does not speak Americanese with all the expletives that go with it. Even if he is angry, he never calls the object of his anger a motherfucker, a foul habit of many been-tos. His sound education, his polished manners, his readiness to stand up for his rights and his willingness to defend at great cost a principle that he holds dear are the easily recognisable signs of his been-to-ness.”
A few years ago, Ebere hired a lawyer to pursue in court the redress for his flight that was cancelled by a Nigerian airline. Every time the case was scheduled, he flew into Lagos from Abuja without minding the cost. To him, the principle he was defending mattered to him more than the money he was spending on the case. That was Ebere.
Ebere was a man of ideas. He loved to explore all the four corners of an idea, which made him a robust forensic warrior. And he wasn’t a warrior that was ill-equipped, but one who was amply armed with knowledge. He lived in America for about three decades and felt the jaundiced perception of Africa as a “basket case, famine-plagued,” savage, war-torn, etc. He was one of those who organised a conference to counter what is generally known as Afro-pessimism, the perception of Africa in very negative light by foreigners.
Famous and very knowledgeable Africans such as Professor Ali Mazrui, Professor Abiola Irele and Professor Peter Ekeh, among other intellectual grants presented the positive achievements of Africa in various fields. Their views are contained in a book that was the product of that conference. The book, titled, “Afro-Optimism: Perspectives on Africa’s Advances,” was edited by Professor Ebere Onwudiwe and Professor Minebere Ibelema. The book is a direct response to the stereotypical stigmatisation of Africa by western scholars, politicians and journalists. Ebere was also the editor of the International Journal of African Studies, published by the National Resource Centre for African Studies at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio.
It was a big surprise to me that his community was honouring him for the fertility of his ideas because, in Nigeria, ideas, good ideas, are either scorned or have a short shelf life or they are simply killed in their embryo. It is the easy perishability of good ideas that is responsible for Nigeria’s stunted growth. Imagine the quantum of ideas sitting in about half a dozen national conference reports unutilised, untouched, undeployed. The idea of state police has been proposed, canvassed, approved and promoted at different forums and platforms as an idea whose time has come but those whose skins are impervious to new ideas are looking away from the merits of that idea.
In various countries, think tanks are the nurseries for ideas, the maternity homes of new thinking on old problems. In Nigeria, new ideas, good ideas, go to the mortuary. The wayward ideas are those pushed forward by the political elite. Now Saudi Arabia, the bastion of the Moslem religion, has abolished child marriage, some renegade Nigerian legislators want the irresponsible act of giving minors away in marriage as a voting right. At a Newswatch colloquium a few years ago on the Niger Delta conundrum, Ebere had proposed what he called the Alaska model, and told us how Alaskans, whose territory is oil-bearing, are being taken care of as co-owners of the oil wealth in their territory. In Nigeria, we are still dragging our feet over the entitlement of mineral-bearing communities.
Nigeria’s development will become fast-paced the day our leaders open themselves to the embrace of new, life-transforming ideas, something that Ebere worked for during his illustrious tenure as a certified public intellectual. His death at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic was a shock to me because, while I was with him, he observed all the strict etiquettes associated with COVID-19. There is a video that some wicked fellows are throwing into the public space in which there was a huge crowd of people spraying and spreading dollars at some function. They claim, falsely, that the spraying was done at Ebere’s chieftaincy conferment. There was no such thing, no band, no music, no party, no dancing and no spraying of anything on anybody. I was there.
After the conferment we just sat in his compound, he, Professor Pat Utomi and I, as his relations came to pay homage. The evening glided past and gave way to a dull night. We went to bed and left the village the following day, bringing the modest ceremony to an end.
Ebere’s death is painful because he was full of life; his major concern while I was with him was how he could help his children Memme and Chinwe to acquire good spouses so that he could become a grandfather soon. As things are now, he will not be the one to sign along the dotted line when they would wed. Sad.