A Dying Breed: Tribute to Emma Ezeazu!, By Chido Onumah
Those who knew Ezeazu as a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from where he emerged as president of NANS in 1986 and those who encountered him either as a rights activists, campaigner for democracy, advocate for electoral reforms or politician will attest to the clarity of his ideas as well as his commitment. But Ezeazu was not all activism and politics. He had a soft side that belied his steely character and powerful voice that gave him a commanding presence during his days as a student activist.
Emma Ezeazu who was buried in Onitsha, South-East Nigeria on July 4 was one the staunchest activists of the radical students’ and civil society movements in Nigeria. His death came as a shock not just to me and many of his comrades, friends and colleagues but to people who knew him only by name and reputation.
The news of Ezeazu’s death in mid-May came shortly after a programme I took part in as part of activities to mark the 2015 Global Day of Citizen Action organised by Project Pink Blue in Nigeria on the theme: “speak out, organise and take action.”
In September 2006, Dr. Omolade Adunbi, then a graduate student at Yale University, and I wrote a tribute to a mutual friend and comrade, Chima Ubani. Ubani had died a year earlier in a car accident along the Potiskum-Bauchi Road on his way from Maiduguri, Borno State, on a mobilisation tour against the arbitrary increase in the price of petroleum products by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration.
Ubani was a fiery activist, one of the finest this country has produced. He was a great mobiliser and it was only natural to think about the tenth anniversary of his demise as I reflected on the theme of this year’s Global Day of Citizen Action. I remembered the call by Omolade Adunbi that fateful day in September 2005 and thought of contacting him to share thoughts on what to do in remembrance of Ubani.
In the decade since the death of Chima Ubani, the radical movement in Nigeria has lost a host of young and very brave warriors: Olaitan Oyerinde, Bamidele Aturu, Oronto Douglas and others. Perhaps, apart from the 1920s at the height of the pan-Nigerian nationalist struggle, no other period in our history witnessed the kind of sustained struggle for students’ rights, democracy, human rights, etc., as the periods of the 1980s and early 1990s. That was the period these late activists held sway. Theirs was the golden generation of student activism and sustained political struggle in Nigeria.
It is sad, therefore, when one reflects on the passage of any comrade who played a key role in that tumultuous period of our national history. But what is even sadder, considering that death is inevitable, is that somehow that generation managed not to reproduce itself. That, perhaps, explains the sorry state of student activism in Nigeria today and the inevitable death knell of our once glorious organisation, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS).
Memory fails me, but my first encounter with Ezeazu must have been at the NANS convention at Obafemi Awolowo University (then University of Ife) in 1989, at the height of the rogue regime of Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, the gap-toothed general whose machinations not only changed the trajectory of Nigeria’s academic and student movements, but also its political future.
Those who knew Ezeazu as a student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from where he emerged as president of NANS in 1986 and those who encountered him either as a rights activists, campaigner for democracy, advocate for electoral reforms or politician will attest to the clarity of his ideas as well as his commitment. But Ezeazu was not all activism and politics. He had a soft side that belied his steely character and powerful voice that gave him a commanding presence during his days as a student activist. In the years before he took ill, an illness that limited his movement and reduced his public appearances, any time that other raconteur, Innocent Chukwuma, was in Abuja was an occasion to reconnect; not only to talk politics, but also to share jokes. And Ezeazu was not an amateur in this regard.
It was heart-warming, therefore, reading the touching tributes to Ezeazu, particularly that of Salihu Moh. Lukman who succeeded Ezeazu as president of NANS in 1988, reflecting his contributions not just to the student movement but the bigger issue of national identity formation and the future of our blighted nation. I draw inspiration from the tribute by Lukman about Ezeazu’s nationalism and I shall quote him extensively.
“In 2011, we held series of consultations and agreed that our mission in politics should be long term and must not be reduced to aspiration for a particular position,” Lukman wrote. “But one area we debated but had to accept to disagree was the ambition of Emma to contest for Senate in Abuja and not Onitsha. I felt Emma would have made more successful impact in Onitsha. Emma disagreed on the grounds that he was only known in Abuja and he was not ready to go back to Onitsha and start negotiating to appropriate the profiles of his parents. With such strong positions, Emma engaged the process of APC formation in Abuja, aspired for House of Representatives but lost the primaries very marginally.”
Lukman went on: “It will be incomplete to talk of the politics of Emma without bringing out the fact (of) his nationalism being unpretentious and without any border. At a time when everyone is returning to his ethnic group, Emma chose to integrate himself with the Gwaris. He worked hard and selflessly for the Gwaris. There is no contest; the Gwaris (took Emma) as their own. One can say confidently, Emma was born an Igbo man and died both an Igbo man and a Gwari. In our generation, Emma is about the only Marxist that practically lived based on Lenin’s dictum of recognising your own nationality but never campaigning for the hegemony of your own nationality over others.”
There is nothing more to add about what needs to be done! Ezeazu’s death challenges patriots and all those who seek to reorder our nationless state!
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