At the risk of sounding boring, what else can one say but to admit that the passing away of the great Senator Chukwumerijie is once again death’s hollow and pretentious victory. The outpouring of the emotions has been genuine and understandable. In scholarship, he belonged to the generation of the great leftists such as Bala Usman, Ikenna Nzimiro, Claude Ake, AU Jalingo, Eskor Toyo, Ola Oni, Bade Onimode, Dipo Fasina, Festus Iyayi, Omafume Onoge, Gani Fawehinmi, and Tajudeen Abduraheem who have all gone to the great beyond.
Today, with time and age, and following the death of Communism, some of those who offered some intellectual spark like Sam Oyovbaire, Adele Jinadu, Mvendaga Jibo, Iyorchia Ayu, Jibrin Jibo, Junaidu Mohammed, Rauf Mustapha, Attahiru Jega, Bade Onimode, Jonathan Zwingina, Sunday Ochoche, Etannibi Alemika, Aisha Imam, Abubakar Momoh, Bala Takaya, Kayode Fayemi, Adebayo Olukoshi, Okey Ibeanu, Abubakar Momoh, etc, have since sloughed into new garb, sobering with age. Realising my connection with most of these people, I can understand why I was called a leftist or Marxist in my younger days! A luta continua has ended and now, some of these men now constitute the burgeoning generation of Nigeria’s rising political and economic elite, or should I say, comprador/bourgeoisie? The ideological choir has disbanded and everyone has founded his/her own altar now.
I did not know Comrade Chukwumerijie at close quarters and our paths only crossed perfunctorily a few times. However, he spoke and wrote with sophistication, depth, rigour, and elegance, that vital trademark of Marxism. He had some level of graceful suaveness in the way he controlled and deployed his language. He could be combative in one moment and in another, measured and persuasive. Like millions of other Nigerians, I read his Periscope Magazine as a young man. Some of the grammar was above my head, but I liked the combative language because it challenged the existing order and visualized another world. My tribute to him will centre on two encounters I had with him.
The first was during the public hearings of Oputa Panel during one of the most controversial phases of the Committee’s work. For, after the public hearings in Enugu, where the most important case was that of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo against the Federal government, the Committee proceeded to Port Harcourt before it returned to Abuja. We arrived to find Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, fully armed and ready to confront Ohaneze Ndi Igbo over the accusations they had made.
When the Panel returned to Abuja, ACF took up the accusations of the alleged marginalization claimed by Ohaneze. At stake was the claim by Ohaneze that the nation had not done much to heal Igboland and that rather, Ndi Igbo had been made to pay for the loss of the war through a deliberate policy of exclusion. The ACF had dismissed the allegations by claiming that the Ndi Igbo could not complain about marginalization because according to ACF research, the Igbos had over 90% of the Hotels in Abuja and were at the centre of the Nigerian economy. So, how could anyone sustain the empty claims of marginalization, ACF queried? ACF all sounded well until Chukwumerijie and the lead Counsel, Chief Mogbo, SAN, took the floor. Through out the work of the Commission, Chief Mogbo made the most impression on me. He spoke with such measured eloquence and professionalism, often taunting his subject before delivering the killer punch.
Standing up to his over six-foot frame, Chukwumerijie delivered what was for me the most caustic attack on ACF. He and Mogbo set out to occupy the moral high ground and they succeed. I almost memorized what Chukwumerije said when he took the stand because it had a mischievous twang. He said something to the effect: Ohaneze perfectly understands the allegation that we, Igbos own over 90% of the hotels in Abuja. There is no doubt about that. However, what is at stake is the fact that we believe Ndi Igbo is marginalized in Nigeria. But perhaps I should explain to ACF that there is a distinction between marginalization and marginality. In my view, marginalization occurs when by deliberate state policy, a government or an institution decides to alienate or deny individuals or a community access to power or its rights. Marginality on the other hand is when an individual or a group decides to deny himself or themselves access to the tools of self-improvement and development.
Yes, we Igbos have put our minds to the hotel business and what we have in Abuja is the result of our hard work. We have not denied the Arewa people their rights to self-improvement. As you can see, they have chosen to put their mind to making suya. In the area of suya making, we Igbos are not able to compete with them. As such, even though we build the hotels, have you seen any Igbo man making suya? The Arewa people have monopolized that business to the exclusion of Ngi Igbo. I still remember how the hall reacted to that brutal delivery.
But, how else could anyone improve on that? Sophistry. Casuistry. Analogism. Parallelism? Chukwumerijie was master of language and had a penetrating insight into any subject he picked up. Throughout the proceedings, I always liked to listen to him. You did not have to agree with him. What was most difficult was to fault his eloquence.
The second incident was on the eve of the burial of my daddy, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa in Oguta last year. The preparation of the funeral had been a challenge. Charly Boy had been on the phone to me with frequency, alleging his frustration and so on. He had already told me that politicians were trying to drag his father’s burial into politics. He told me that Comrade Chukwumerijie was the only one he trusted and would allow a prominent role. I told him I had no wish to enter into those troubled waters and that my business was to ensure that papa got a good Catholic burial. I knew that the event would attract a lot of people and I had not had enough time with Mama, so I decided that I would arrive Oguta on the eve of the burial. Charly Boy had no Catholic credentials for me to draw from and I was not sure he would know what to do with the local priest. The Archbishop of Owerri had already told me he would be out of the country but would ensure that everything I needed along with a driver would be in place.
I also wanted to spend some time with Mama Oputa before the funeral since I knew she would be overwhelmed with emotions.
After dinner in the parish house, I went over to spend some time with Mama Oputa. Midway through the evening, Senator Chukwumerijie came in, dressed in his usual immaculate white. I rose to greet him and he embraced me quite warmly rather than shake my hand. We chatted for some time and at about ten o’clock he said he wanted to go to the house of Chief Arthur Nzeribe. I remembered that Chief Nzeribe was the most famous son of Oguta but since I was not close to him, I had not asked if he was in town and did not wish to barge into his house.
I had personally never sat down with this famous son of Oguta. I recalled that we had crossed swords with him in the early 90s when, at the height of our nation’s woes, he had granted an interview in which he had said that we were better off negotiating with the military. This was the background to his infamous Association for a Better Nigeria. I wrote a pretty strong piece dismissing and literally shredding his arguments to bits. He replied rather weakly, I recall by appealing to Archbishop Obinna to call me to order or something to that effect. I was not sure how he would welcome me.
However, when Comrade Chukwumerijie told me that Chief Nzeribe was very sick, I offered to go to greet and hopefully pray for him since I knew him to be Catholic. We drove some distance within the town and then drove into his famous compound. Unfortunately for me, it was dark and I did not have the chance of taking in all the beauty of his famous estate, a famous landmark in Oguta. We got in and found Chief Nzeribe seated. He really looked ill. He welcomed us very warmly and was quite delighted to see me. I shook and hugged him on his chair.
We had barely sat down when his wife appeared to greet us and asked what we would drink. I asked for either a coke or soda water. Then, suddenly, a young steward appeared with a bottle of Crystal champagne on a tray with four glasses. Chief Chukwumerijie cancelled my order of coke and insisted we toasted to the health of our friend. He opened the champagne, poured it and proposed a toast to the health of Chief Nzeribe.
We then spent some time chatting about the country. Later on, from nowhere, Chukwumerijie raised an interesting question: By the way, Chief, he said to his old friend, Bishop Kukah is here and I think I should ask you: What became of that your famous plan to convert to Islam in Kano in the 80s? Chief Nzeribe looked at both of us, smiled mischievously and calmly said: Don’t mind them. At the last minute, they did not pay up so I did not show up!
Apparently, to induce him to become a Muslim and hoist him up as a publicity stunt, some members of the Muslim elite had enticed Chief Nzeribe and given him contracts in Kano. Apparently, there was still a big prize that was offered. I imagine that some of us still recall how the mosque in the Emir’s palace had stood still on a Friday awaiting the arrival and the formal baptism of Chief Nzeribe into the Muslim fold. I recall as the news went, that after failing to show up in Kano, the chief rather appeared in the Catholic Church in his Oguta home the following Sunday! Chief Nzeribe was not prepared to say more than that. He gave us the look that suggested that this was talk for another day. I stood up and called for prayers for Chief Nzeribe. I prayed and blessed him with his family and we departed well after 11pm.
Senator Chukwumerijie will be sorely missed, but again, along with his death will go the sad memory of the funeral of ideology. I miss the passionate, razor sharp debate that Marxism introduced into our society. I did not believe in it but I admired their binary worldview and even the occasional hypocritical claims of a holier than thou attitude. I missed the missionary zealotry that claimed that a brave new world was by the corner. I missed the passion of the youth who demonstrated because even in their naivety, they believed that they could conquer the world.
Chukwumerijie entered the convoluted and treacherous waters of Nigerian politics, swam with the sharks but survived the ravenous injuries of their bloody fangs. How did his abstemious lifestyle impact on the money grabbing culture that produced him? We will never know if like his hero, Aminu Kano, he relied on the raw energy and doggedness of his foot soldiers. Sadly, student unionism today has mutated into a government of its own, not unexpectedly, riddled with the scars of their corrupt and villainous uncles who have turned politics from service to a pool of venality. He perhaps closes a chapter of what might have been in Nigeria, a dream deferred, a road not taken and opportunities suspended.
Comrade will be missed by all of us. His white apparel shone a bit of brightness in the political darkness of both the Senate itself and what masquerades as politics in Nigeria. However, for Mallam Adamu, the Fulani herdsman who, finding himself unable to pronounce the name of the new Minister for Information in 1992, told his neighbour that President Babangida had named a new Minister for Information. The name sounded like Chukwu something, like Chukwu-mairadio (Chukwu, the radio man!). Not a bad turn of phrase. With his death, the curtain has fallen for the radical tradition in Nigeria. God rest him.