By Oseloka Zikora
His oratorical skill is his spotlight, which catapults him mostly to dizzying heights sometimes not contemplated. Take Ibadan, for instance, where he was an economics student at the then premier university. He was contesting the students’ union presidency and he had a Yoruba student as the leading opponent. How would he, an “alejo,” that is, a stranger, turn the tables against such formidable opposition?
Then came the manifesto night: his opponent spoke first and against the rules of the contest concluded his address in Yoruba, appealing to ethnic sentiments and exhorting the predominantly Yoruba student population to vote one of their own. The chant was “tinwan tinwa o, je ka wole (our own, our own, …ours is ours)” and the atmosphere was charged. To make matters worse, the crowd was dispersing in the accompanying commotion. Somehow, confronted by a Yoruba student and chief campaigner of the disadvantaged “Omoigbo”, the electoral officer asked that the hall be locked, insisted that all candidates must be heard.
That was the luck that changed the course that night for John Nnia Nwodo. Add to that the fact that many of the Yoruba students felt insulted by the opponent’s resort to primordial sentiments. So, Nwodo determined to seize the disenchantment of the moment, and remembering lines he memorised from his elder brother the late Dr. Joe Nwodo’s PhD thesis, he waxed both oratorical and philosophical. With booming baritone voice, he spoke with alluring cadence: “The University of Ibadan in view of its premier position in the development of institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, is like a national educational volcano. When Ibadan sneezes, the rest of the universities in Nigeria catch cold. It is in this connection that I see the leadership of the students union. It must be a model to follow. It must partner with the university’s administrators to achieve the highest level of academic excellence, of students’ behaviour and a shining example of Nigeria’s greatness to the rest of the world.” His love for the descriptive way Dr. Joe had written about the Congo Crisis and the role of the OAU and the United Nations in the achievement of world peace had saved the day for the creative John. The lines in question were: “The Congo, in view of its central position in Africa, was like a continental political volcano. Accordingly, when it erupts, seismic waves ripple across the whole of Africa, and the OAU broke into the Casablanca and Monrovia blocks.”
The enraptured students were clearly so electrified with the brilliant eloquence that they carried him shoulder-high all over the campus that night. The next day’s election was a mere walk-over for victory had been assured with the gift of the garb for John.
Reminiscing on that University of Ibadan election, Nwodo recalled: “The female students preferred me to my opponent, forgive my modesty but they thought I looked better. Secondly, the postgraduate students, the medical students, who were older, thought I was more mature and more forthright than my opponent. Thirdly, the majority of students who were adults, especially those who came from outside, preferred someone like me. Far more important, the young Yorubas found something attractive in what they described as my intellectual dynamism. When my opponent resorted to tribal sentiments to secure votes, many of his kin felt insulted by that primordial inclination. The Yoruba have continued to show an urban, cosmopolitan and detribalized perspective in assessing intellectual issues in our country and that was dramatized in my election.”
Apart from the father, Chief J.U. Nwodo, a First Republic politician, young John’s foray into politics was heavily influenced by the late Dr. Joe Nwodo, popularly referred to as “Agadagbachiliuzo”, perhaps due to his intimidating presence and imposing height not only in physique but also on the soapbox. No wonder John Nwodo, after his university days, delved right into mainstream national politics as one of the brilliant youngsters of then National Party of Nigeria (NPN). He was appointed a special assistant to President Shehu Shagari on information and special duties at 27, and later promoted to minister for aviation during Shagari’s second tenure. He was to become a minister for information and culture under the Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar’s regime and, between 2002 and 2003, contested the presidential primary of then All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP). Speaking about his role in government, ex-head of state, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar said: “Chief Nwodo was not just a member of the cabinet but a phenomenal one, being the mouthpiece of the administration as minister of information. His was one choice of a square peg in a square hole. He did his job so well that the challenges of our administration then were very well placed before Nigerians and the international community. Nwodo’s contributions in the cabinet were outstanding not just for his oratory and eloquent delivery of points, but more for his deep understanding of issues of governance.”
An apostle of restructuring, Nwodo’s thoughts on the subject are best encapsulated in a speech delivered at Chatham House, London, where he emphasized that the model of sharing government revenue must give way to a new structure, which challenges and drives productivity in different regions across the country: “This new model must take into account that the factors driving productivity in today’s world are no longer driven by fossil energy but rather the proliferation of a knowledge-based economy. The restructuring of Nigeria into smaller and independent federations and the devolution of powers to these federating units to control exclusively their human capital development, mineral resources, agriculture and power (albeit with an obligation to contribute to the federal government) is the only way to salvage our fledgling economy.”
Restructuring, he stressed, would “devote attention to the new wealth areas, promote competition and productivity as the new federating units struggle to survive. It will drastically reduce corruption as the large federal parastatals, which gulp government revenue with little or no impact, dissolve and give way to small and viable organs in the new federating units.”
The high point of Nwodo’s political career was his election as the ninth president-general of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the apex socio-cultural organization representing all the Igbo-speaking communities domiciled in the South-East states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, South-South states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta and Rivers, plus North Central states of Benue and Kogi. Speaking of his term at the pan-Igbo organisation, Nnia Nwodo disclosed that his leadership’s major achievements include the overall awakening of the consciousness of Igbo people to the desire to be united and speak with one voice and placing that voice on the front burner of the Nigerian agenda: “You could see the desire of our people to nurture an organisation that speaks for them the way PANDEF speaks for the Niger Delta, Middle Belt Forum for that region, Afenifere for the Yoruba and the way the Arewa/Northern Elders Forum speaks for the North. That and the partnership I nurtured with PANDEF, Afenifere and Middle Belt in representing the interest of the people from these various geographical areas.”
Chief John Nwodo, an alumnus of the prestigious London School of Economics, was married to Regina Obiageli Nwodo. Justice of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria, until her death in 2013. He clocks 70 on December 11, a day his friends have set apart to celebrate his iconic contributions to national development with a colloquium expected to be chaired by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
•Zikora, veteran broadcaster and public affairs analyst, was media adviser to the John Nwodo presidential campaign, from 2002 to 2003