Back Page Article published in ThisDay Newspaper, 12 February 2016
Since Mummy told me on the phone on 15 January, 2016, that you had passed on, I have had an opportunity to reflect upon what I knew about your life, the things you said and/or stood for, what others said and still say about you and the many lessons that our family, community, state and nation can learn/glean from the unshakeable ideas and principles that you stood for.
When I wrote my earlier (and only other tribute), I did mention that my sisters and I learnt as much from cracking jokes about your stern lectures, mannerisms, style of rebuke, tone of voice chosen for the rebuke etc as we did from the actual direct principled message that you repeatedly sought to impart. I also mentioned that your decision to buy shares in a new investment bank which I was about to lead and manage (IBTC) at a tender age (back in 1988/89) spoke volumes, because you only really invested in IBTC (now Stanbic IBTC) because you considered it inappropriate for me to seek outside investors for a venture which my own father was afraid of. This reinforced my desire to preserve the bank’s capital at all times.
Your career as a young medical doctor saw you working in Lagos (where Tonye was born), Bauchi, Ilorin and Jos (where Belema was born) in the old Northern region and then to Enugu, Owerri, Port Harcourt (where I was born), Calabar etc in the old Eastern region. The creation of 12 states in 1967 paved the way for your permanent residence in Port Harcourt where you ended your career as the Controller of Medical Services.
Yes, you specialised in Opthalmology in the early 1960s, but the memory of you responding as the sole doctor in various small cities to every type of medical emergency/crisis is the one that lingers most. In all those cities, your name was Doctor because you were the only Doctor they had in their city in those days – and so you handled everything from complicated childbirths to amputations, heart attacks and even infectious diseases. Because you were permanently “on call”, I decided from a very early age that there must be alternative paths to earning a decent living outside of medicine, which looked like a thankless job to me.
I remember that during the Biafran civil war, as soon as Port Harcourt was “liberated” by the Federal troops, you ran back to the General Hospital to check on the condition of the patients who were too weak and/or did not have the limbs to run away from advancing Federal troops. I was the one that met you at the door to our home when you came back home looking crest-fallen. I asked you what the matter was and you told me that Federal troops shot all those immobile patients to death in their beds. It fitted your narrative of how war was terrible (civil war in particular). This is not to say that you were not aware of repulsive atrocities from the other side. Your pain was complete when you lost all your savings in the civil war, but you quickly worked night and day to ensure that you could send me to university in England less than four years after the Nigerian civil war ended.
That was not your first encounter with war. Your journey to England to study medicine was held up for some years by the Second World War. As a 10-year-old, you told me that Nigeria was heading for a horrible crisis in late 1965 because the federal government was allowing an election imbroglio in the Western region to fester and linger whilst the citizenry were taking the law into their own hands. Your words turned out to be prophetic when a bloody military coup took place on 15 January, 1966. You told me that Nigeria may never be the same again from that day. Your continued emphasis on 15 January 1966 as a turning point in our nation’s history stuck in my head. At that tender age, I could not understand why some senior military officers lost their lives on that day on account of problems that had nothing to do with them. You told me that they were good senior soldiers who would not have tolerated what the younger and more junior coup plotters were up to. I still recall that it was my first painful encounter with the concept of “collateral damage” and it seemed so unfair then and still feels that way today.
One thing led to another until we slid into a civil war. Our whole family was trapped in Biafra for one year. During one of the numerous air raids, a bomb fell in our back garden when you were out and I showed you where it fell when you came home. The only time I was truly scared was when artillery shells were whistling over our rooftop and exploding somewhere else in Port Harcourt. We came out of all that and then you launched a campaign to redraw the boundary of Rivers State because our home (Opobo) had inadvertently been lumped into Cross River State, where we clearly did not belong and where we would have been numerically insignificant in the midst of major ethnic groups that “owned and dominated” the state.
You explained to me that, for as long as ethnicity remained a factor in Nigerian politics, nobody from Opobo, Andoni or Nkoro would have been able to vie for any serious political office in the old South-Eastern State. After winning the battle to join Rivers State, Opobo has since produced a senator, a deputy governor and even the governorship candidate of a major political party in 2015 (our cousin Dakuku Peterside).
At the community level you were always very active and also led a 23-year legal tussle over the Amanyanabo stool. What was remarkable was your decision to stretch out a hand of fellowship as soon as the Supreme Court over-turned the earlier High Court and Appeal Court judgments which were in favour of your camp. I wish those agitating for various forms of conflict in our country today would accept your injunction of going to the courts instead of taking up arms and that our judiciary will stand up and be counted always.
I will say it again. Yes, you were a medical doctor and probably Nigeria’s oldest when you passed on in January 2016. Yes, you were an Opthalmologist of repute. Yes, you were a father (who saw his last child turn 60), a husband (for 65 years), a chief etc. Above all, however, you were an influencer and so you influenced both those who liked you and those who did not like you.
I would like to follow your footsteps and become an influencer – a “force for good” as opposed to the mere occupant of a post. The Lord knows why your time on earth ended on 15 January, 2016, exactly 50 years after 15 January, 1966 – a date which you had identified as monumental in terms of national problems foretold.