By C. Don Adinuba
With the death in the early hours of March 4, 2017, of Benedict Ebele Obumselu, Africa and indeed the world have been robbed of one of the most formidable minds in recent times. Whether in oral pronouncements or in writing or even in the manner he walked and gesticulated, Obumselu exhibited delightful scholarship—graceful, elegant, calm and measured in all circumstances. He was one of the most learned men I have ever met anywhere, in the class of Isaiah Berlin, the erstwhile Jewish Oxford University vice chancellor whom Arthur Schlesinger, President Kennedy’s special assistant and great historian at the City University of New York, described as arguably the greatest man of letters in the 20th century. Michael J. C. Echeruo, poet, critic and university administrator who was to retire as William Sapphire professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse University in New York, called Obumselu the greatest African literary scholar of his generation.
Obumselu was the first president of the association of Nigerian university students and the first English graduate of the University College, Ibadan. He was studying for a Bachelor of Arts (General) degree at Ibadan, then affiliated to the University College, London, when the degree programme in English was introduced in the 1950s; he switched to the new course because the single honours programme was very prestigious in those days in Nigeria. He had yet to graduate when he was offered admission at Oxford to study for the Doctor of Philosophy degree without reading for a Master’s. The admission was based on the strong recommendations of his lecturers at Ibadan who had been at Oxford. While an undergraduate Obumselu had acquired the accent and mannerisms of a typical Oxford don, and fellow students like Emeka Anyaoku, who was to become the Commonwealth secretary general, used to derive pleasure from watching him speak.
He returned to Ibadan in the 1960s, teaching people like Stanley Macebuh, Dan Izavbeye, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jim Nwobodo, Theo Vincent, Molara Ogundipe, etc. Saro-Wiwa, not a man generous with praise, told the audience at the presentation in 1989 of his Prisoners of Jebs at Sheraton Hotel in Lagos that he was privileged to “learn at the feet of eminent scholars like Obumselu at Ibadan”. Obumselu displayed scintillating scholarship in his review of the book, delighting the audience with his range of philosophical speculation as he spoke on human freedom. Agreeing and disagreeing with various authorities, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ray Ekpu, Theo Vincent and Odia Ofeimun, among others, were swept off their feet, all the more since he spoke without notes. Ken never ceased to thank me for bringing Obumselu to speak at the book launch.
As Nigeria’s political crisis of the late 1960s deteriorated, Obumselu, like most Eastern Nigerians outside their homeland, fled back home. He became one of Biafran leader Emeka Ojukwu’s closest advisers. He played a vital role in producing Ojukwu’s famous Ahiara Declaration of 1968, one of the greatest speeches by any African leader ever. This role was to put him in danger when the war ended. Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, whose 3rd Marine Commando Division defeated Biafra on January 12, 1970, furtively advised him to leave Nigeria immediately. People like Pius Okigbo, Africa’s most decorated economist and Obumselu’s close friend and intellectual soul mate, were to be incarcerated for long for their roles in Biafra.
Obumselu then travelled to Oxford which was pleased to offer one of its brightest alumni a job, thus making him one of the few Africans ever to given an academic position at the most prestigious British university. But the post would not be available till the next academic session. This was quite tough for someone who had just emerged from a ruinous war with practically no money, and so he settled for the University of Birmingham, another prestigious institution. He then moved to the Sorbonne, Europe’s second oldest university and the most prestigious in France. Disenchanted with little global attention to African affairs, Obumselu returned to Africa where he became a peripatetic scholar. He taught at universities in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Zambia, Lesotho and Botswana. He was on his way to the American University in Egypt when Jim Nwobodo, then Anambra State governor, pleaded with him to join his government.
I was watching the newly established Anambra Television Service in Enugu when Dan Ibekwe, a banker turned broadcaster who spoke with a BBC accent and endowed with an incredible forensic skill, introduced Obumselu in his current affairs programme. I was surprised that the programme’s guest was already a full professor because his exceedingly good looks made him look like someone in his early 30s. I was charmed by the guest’s great insights and eloquence and calmness. The next day I set out to meet Ibekwe so that he could link me to his guest whom I had never heard of till the previous night. Good a thing, Obumselu’s office was a stone’s throw away. Obumselu was so genial and humble when we met. We struck a lifelong friendship from that very day in 1982, despite the considerable difference in age. Far from saying “You are wrong” or “I disagree with you”, he would rather state: “I understand your point, but some person may think that …”. He was so cultured and sensitive.
His influence on me is far-reaching, even in speech. I profited tremendously from his vast learning. In our several discussions and debates over sundry issues, he would say something like this: “C. Don, you have spoken well about the concept of change in society. Now, address me on change from the perspective of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind”. He delighted in philosophy. Obumselu was also at home with economic and development matters. I frequently picked his brain. The trio of Ukpabi Asika, Pius Okigbo and Obumselu were among my greatest sources of informal learning. I am proud Obumselu and his delectable wife Fidelia were the official witnesses at my private wedding at St Agnes Catholic Church in Lagos, even though he was Anglican. He expressed delight at the intellectual richness of the homily by the priest, a Ghanaian research student at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
Obumselu was deeply worried at the political decline of the Igbo people and devoted the last two decades to the Igbo cause. He relocated from Lagos to Enugu and worked with Ohaneze Ndigbo. He provided intellectual leadership in the emergence of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). He had earlier worked hard at getting the Igbo and the Yoruba to work together in what was famously known as the handshake across the Niger. He was the Ohaneze candidate for the post of Secretary to the Government of the Federation in 2011, but President Goodluck Jonathan eventually settled for Pius Anyim.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting
An indigene of Oba in Anambra State, Obumselu was born in 1930. Though he did not return to the university environment since he retired from the Imo (now Abia) State University as the dean of the arts school in 1988, he was still publishing in some of the world’s greatest academic journals up to the time he took ill recently. An illuminating essay for Johns Hopkins University’s journal on literary ideas revealed new sources of James Cary’s fiction. He disagreed with Chinua Achebe that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist novel, arguing that Achebe read it “as a generalist rather than a researcher”.
His article on African writing and the influence of Marxism has been published in books and journals, including World Literature where I read it over 20 years ago. Obumselu was an authority on Russian literature and South African social and literary history. Only a few days to his death I found myself re-reading his “Andre Brink: A Historian of the South African Liberation”, published in African Commentary in June, 1990. I did not know his spirit was hovering around close friends as his own way of telling us that it was time to go. May the soul of this absorbing scholar rest in peace.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.