Last week, I received a text message from Okey Anueyiagu, a consummate art connoisseur, businessman and dear friend, with news that his father, Chukwuma Anueyiagu, the Okeazu (Pillar) of Awka, had passed into eternity. The deceased had attained the rare grand age of 100 years. Despite the fact that the centenarian had lived almost twice the life expectancy for a Nigerian male, the text announcing his passing left me deeply distraught and sad. I will explain why presently.
At the time of his death, he was perhaps little known outside of his hometown of Awka—and among a small circle of buffs of Nigerian history. That this remarkable man was not a household name in Nigeria and beyond strikes me as a great pity. A pity, not for the man who just danced his last steps and joined the ancestors—for he was a veritable giant in his own right. No, a pity, instead, for a country where men and women of stellar stature are consigned to anonymity while certified fools and mediocrities are venerated. Quite simply, the pity is that Chukwuma Anueyiagu was unfortunate to belong to a country that’s thoroughly bereft of tested heroes and lofty memories.
The late Anueyiagu belonged to a small company of extraordinary men and women whose intelligence, industry, vision and commitment gave renascent Nigeria its original hope, energy and dynamism. He was a major player in Nigerian journalism in its fledging and most critical years, in Nigeria’s nationalist struggles, and in the confounding effort to shape an impressive post-Independence Nigerian identity.
Chukwuma Anueyiagu was born on January 3, 1915, a time freighted with historical significance. A year before his birth in Amudo village, Awka, British colonialists had amalgamated Northern and Southern protectorates of Nigeria to found an entity that would become the most populous acquisition of the British in Africa. From the very beginning, then, he seemed destined to play a defining role in the drama of self-reclamation. By all accounts, his own father, Anueyiagu Dilibe, was a man whose towering physique and strength caught the eye of British colonialists. Though successful as a farmer and hunter, Anueyiagu Dilibe consented to work with the British in a number of capacities. British officials took him around the burgeoning space that would become Nigeria, setting up wrestling matches in which he showed off his incredible strength and prowess by vanquishing his opponents.
Convinced of the benefits of western education, the great wrestler encouraged his children to go to school. Chukwuma Anueyiagu responded to his father’s entreaty in a positive and decisive manner. At eleven, he began his formal schooling at Government School, Awka, graduating in 1934. He subsequently enrolled for further training at the London Tuition College, and The London Institute of Journalism, sharpening and deepening his skills in editorial writing, reportage, and composition.
Fortuitously, Anueyiagu’s desire to ply a career as a journalist coincided with a time that Nnamdi Azikiwe, just returned from studies in the United States, was setting up several newspapers. Azikiwe—who was popularly known as Zik—would become the most charismatic figure in Nigeria’s struggle for Independence. Zik was quick to recognize the talent, enterprise and drive of the young Anueyiagu, whom he hired in 1938 as a compositor for the Lagos-based West Africa Pilot. Within a few years, Anueyiagu rose to become the editor of the newspaper in 1945.
His career was marked by frequent reassignment to newer challenges. In 1948, Zik asked Anueyiagu to move to Zik’s own hometown of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria to edit and manage the Nigerian Spokesman. Within a matter of a few months, Zik posted him to Port Harcourt to edit the Eastern Guardian and then transferred him to Kano in Nigeria’s northwest to be the founding editor of the Daily Comet.
Each journalistic post posed its own peculiar challenge, and came with serious hazards. Zik’s stable of papers became part and parcel of the anti-colonialist movement. And Zik was enamored of the young Anueyiagu, admiring his editorial fearlessness and the strong language with which he criticized the colonizers. The British were not amused. They repaid the intrepid Anueyiagu with arrests and detentions.
Given the stiff personal price he paid because of his conviction that Nigerians deserved the right to manage their own lives, Anueyiagu was deeply pained to behold the rat race unfurled by the crass inheritors of political power from the British. More than a little disillusioned, he left journalism and became an entrepreneur.
He brought to his businesses the same ethical acumen, imagination and discipline that had enabled him to thrive in journalism. He became a successful printer, oil marketer, soft drinks manufacturer, and school proprietor. He also earned great admiration as a community organizer, mentor, and political activist. The considerable fortune he earned in business enabled him to become a generous philanthropist. He invested in the education of students from poor backgrounds and in the business ventures of inventive, but financially strapped, young men and women.
I had first heard tidbits about the noble life and exploits of the late Anueyiagu by eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations. The man came up in conversations in part because his wife—the love of his life—was a beautiful woman from my father’s extended family in Amawbia. It was in those overheard conversations that I first formed an image in my mind of the man who just died.
Over the last six or seven years, I had the privilege of meeting the man in flesh and blood three times. At our first meeting, at his son, Okey’s country home in Awka, I was amazed by his encyclopedic grasp of Nigerian history. He was well into his nineties at the time, but his memory was quite sharp. I marveled as he recalled certain political, social and cultural events that took place in the early years of Nigeria’s formation as a colonial entity. He combined that penetrating insight with a vital grasp of contemporary events. I came away from that encounter with the sense that I had been exposed to a true human treasury of knowledge. I told him that I wanted to conduct a series of interviews with him, the better to preserve his life and work in a permanent form for the benefit of posterity. I regret that I was never able to undertake that task.
Chukwuma Anueyiagu was able to speak with moving intimacy about the personages and events of Nigerian history because he was not just an observer of them—he was a central participant. If anybody could be described as an all-Nigerian, here was one. He had lived a long life, but he had not permitted his years to be marred by idleness, hollowness or mediocrity. He had lost everything—his businesses and wealth—to the Biafran War, but there was no trace of bitterness as he spoke about this loss. For him, material possessions were nothing when juxtaposed with the imperative of living a dignified life, as a man of unquestioned integrity.
The hundred years it pleased God to grant him on earth were spent in rich and enriching work. Here was a man who never seemed happier than when he was working to enlarge others, to leave society larger and better than he met it. Without question, his longevity was a blessing, an extended opportunity to touch more people, to leave his indelible imprints on his family and others who, like me, had the good fortune of meeting him.
Even so, his uncommon longevity also meant that he was around for long enough to bear witness to the thorough mess that the rest of us had managed to make of a country he and so many others had labored strenuously to achieve. He was a man of cheerful disposition, but I wager that he must have been pained to see how desultorily Nigeria turned out.
Here’s a fact that I find galling. Each year, the Nigerian Presidency bestows national honors on some citizens. The honors are supposed to recognize outstanding citizenship and heroic contributions to the betterment of Nigeria. It is a shame that not one Nigerian administration had the imagination and insight to honor Chukwuma Anueyiagu, a man whose life and work would stand out by any criteria. Yet, each year, those who misgovern Nigeria are able to dredge up all manner of nonentities, mediocrities, and knaves, turning the country’s honor roll into a cesspit.
Anueyiagu has departed, but here’s the consolation: he is imperishable. He will live on in the minds of those who care about good names, about integrity, and about vibrant legacies.
Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe