The world will indeed miss Onwudiwe’s outstanding contributions to debates; mentees cannot imagine what blow they have just suffered. Together, we are one short of a great mind in academia. Like thousands of others, I will miss his musings, always carefully crafted with didactic pedagogy, crucial to personal growth and national development.
The highlight of 2020, irrespective of which continent or country you were in, was the ravaging pandemic, COVID-19. Many fell to its brutal sword, leaving families in mourning and friends in sorrow in the wake of its devastating strikes. Many more might fall as the contagious virus continues to ignore prayers, pilgrimages, offerings, and tithes. If you like, worship the Atlantic Ocean, pour libation to the River Niger, slaughter a cock to Aso Rock, COVID-19 will not listen. Its only drink is blood, and it feeds on human flesh. It hears and speaks no mild language and its numbers have even mocked the basic science and common sense of social distancing, the washing/sanitising of hands, and the wearing of face masks!
In my “End of the Year” review, I acknowledged the many who had big plans for 2020 but were restricted; there were also those who had thought far ahead, made plans for 2021 and beyond, but didn’t outlive 2020. And yesterday, I was beset by one of the first awful news of 2021. Just barely a week into the reign of the ne year, I have just lost a friend and comrade in scholarship. The world has lost another worthy soldier; Nigeria said goodnight early to one of its best, a professor of vast knowledge, a sociable person, a patriotic who had a strong faith in Nigeria’s growth and development. I mourn the loss of Professor Ebere Onwudiwe and equally sympathise with his family. I knew him for over 40 years. The last time I saw him was at a fish and beer joint in Abuja, in the company of the great Professor Jibrin Ibrahim, the prolific public intellectual. Trust us, we argued over Nigeria.
COVID-19 did its worst again! It has taken away a productive force in academia; now a score of them within two weeks. The world will indeed miss Onwudiwe’s outstanding contributions to debates; mentees cannot imagine what blow they have just suffered. Together, we are one short of a great mind in academia. Like thousands of others, I will miss his musings, always carefully crafted with didactic pedagogy, crucial to personal growth and national development. Indeed, he was a serial and consistent writer. Just as he contributed to knowledge production in many of his books, his opinions have served as a fountain from which millions drew inspiration and engendered national and academic discourses. Some of his publications include:
- The Management of the National Question in Nigeria
- Nigerian Federalism in Crisis: Critical Perspectives and Political Options
- Nigeria’s Struggle for Democracy and Good Governance: A Festschrift for Oyeleye Oyediran
- “Nigeria: Completing Obasanjo’s Legacy”
- Breaking the Cycle of Electoral Violence in Nigeria
- “Introduction: The Promise and Pitfalls of Nigerian Federalism”
- “Clashing Cymbals: The Nigerian Press and the Narratives of the National Question”
- “An Assessment of the Quota System in Nigeria with Emphasis on the Education Sector”
- “Military Coups in Africa: A Framework for Research”
- Afro-optimism: Perspectives on Africa’s Advances
If anything, they show his passionate commitment to Nigeria. As a political scientist, he combined his knowledge and vastness in politics with experience spanning longer than Nigeria’s independence, to produce solution-based works to make Nigeria better.
A peek into his website, www.ebereonwudiwe.com, would give insight into his thought process and how he devoted his life and experience to contribute to national discourses. I am a lover of real men and women, and like the younger generations would say, “I stan greatness.” As my tribute to him, it is crucial to reiterate his works emphatically. They are his legacies. A cursory look at some of his knowledge production in the form of opinions published on his website would serve this purpose without missing out on the best of lessons embedded in Onwudiwe’s world of intellectual output.
Onwudiwe must have risked the ire of many African presidents when he penned his thoughts on this award for “African leaders unable to steal in billions.” Indeed, he reflected his disgust and hatred for corruption and corrupt practices when he deemed stealing in office a red flag to disqualify African leaders from winning the coveted award.
Here are five of the values espoused and derived from his works; call them a scratching on the surface of his enormous contributions to Nigeria, and by extension Africa, and you won’t be wrong.
1. The Belief In Strong Institutions: I take this from his most recent contribution before his transition. As he rightly put it, something I echoed myself about the same period, Trump’s defeat is a win for democracy and democrats everywhere in the world. In his piece following the declaration of the victory of Joe Biden as the 46th POTUS, he emphasised the need for strong institutions in Africa, and Nigeria in particular. He surmised his advocacy with three different lessons-cum-references deducible from the United States’ election, in his usual manner. The first was from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General Mark Milley, who reconfirmed the American military’s fidelity to the constitution and no one else: A strong military, not subjected to bullying. In the second instance, despite being appointed to office by President Trump, the judicial arm of government — a strong and genuinely independent judiciary — repeatedly rejected Trump, alongside his appeals after the elections, through one setback after another. Finally, the people’s firm belief that their votes would count ensured they trooped out en masse to vote him out. In contrast, his outcry of “stop the count!” was not respected by any of the states, which independently administered their election. True federalism, no less.
2. Africa Shall Not Live by Bread Alone: All over the world, the subject matter of racism as a pandemic has heightened within the last year with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. While the focus has often been on Europe-North America, Onwudiwe directed our attention to one, unspoken of enough or not at all — racism in China. Not only did he call attention to this racial abuse in China, he also proposed feasible ways to deal with it. His piece on this subject demonstrates not only his concern about racism, but it also depicts him as a brilliant problem-solver. His essay evaluates the possible problems Africa — led by Nigeria — will face in taking the case up at the United Nations. He acknowledged the financial aid Africa gets from China but emphasised the need to maintain dignity and self-respect and hence, the UN as a referee. The UN as an umpire also poses a problem in that China’s Li Yanduan comfortably holds the office of vice-chairman of the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which means he could easily beat down the case. Simultaneously, the Chinese retain their veto in the UN Security Council, which implies that sanction is impossible. It is not all gloomy as a purple patch emerged in the General Assembly, where Nigeria (as Africa) has a level playing field.
3. The Igbo Presidency: Not forgetting his origin, although comfortably living in the country’s capital — the headquarters of the widely-believed Igbo marginalisation — he contributed to the most prominent debate emanating from his roots and offered his widow’s mite. The actualisation of an Igbo presidency by the Ndigbo has been a running one for long. Onwudiwe believes that “charity begins at home” and that the Igbo nation needs to embark on the promotion and actualisation of a broad nationwide coalition over the individualistic interests of leading politicians and fractional movements in the geo-political zone. Also, there should be a concerted political gap-bridging effort with the South-South, while adopting a universal political identity, making it a goal won on a united front. As prequel to the last, Ndigbo’s support to any of the two big national parties, according to Onwudiwe, must be based on a commitment to an Igbo presidency. At the same time, the Igbo, anywhere in the world, should lend their support to such a party. Finally, he admonished that, most importantly, the Ndigbo must be ready to unite in the common national interest, accept compromise, and advance an Igbo presidency project with a nationalistic outlook.
4. Endorsement of Mo Ibrahim Foundation: Onwudiwe must have risked the ire of many African presidents when he penned his thoughts on this award for “African leaders unable to steal in billions.” Indeed, he reflected his disgust and hatred for corruption and corrupt practices when he deemed stealing in office a red flag to disqualify African leaders from winning the coveted award. This espouses his values and thoughts on what makes an ideal African president. He firmly posited that a winner must have been a former president; exited office within the last three years; been democratically elected; not have governed beyond the constitutionally spelt tenure; and must have “demonstrated exceptional leadership.” Indeed, Onwudiwe’s intention is unequivocal. He aims to eliminate the institution of “sit-tight” leaders with tendencies to spend time beyond their legitimate tenure in office, an anti-democratic practice. The position on having been constitutionally elected and that representatives not stay in power beyond term emphasises his love and passion for democracy. At the same time, his insistence on “demonstrated exceptional leadership” underscores his passion and demand for excellent leadership from African leaders.
Ebere was a very knowledgeable person, a pragmatic thinker, and a prolific writer who had a unique way of relating with people who were far junior to him in age and experience as colleagues. He was an unrepentant patriot who still had a lot to offer the country. This is a very untimely, shocking, and devastating loss.
5. “The Perfect Christmas Present for Nigerians”: This is one of the last articles he left us before the salvation called. Coincidentally, this entry is something I can relate to in my piece at the end of the year titled: “2020: Sorrow, Tears, Blood, and Death,” my summary of 2020 in Nigeria. Indeed, at the end of his piece, he emphasised three gifts, all drawing on the country’s terrible state of insecurity. Perhaps, there is no worse way for Nigeria to sign off 2020 vis-à-vis its international reputation, ranked 147th of 163 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI). The ravaging menace of Boko Haram, the problems created by cross-border smuggling of goods affecting the country’s economic potentials, and the third challenge of continual militarisation with underlying factors in unrestricted border access to Niger and Benin Republic — two countries identified as deteriorating — were the main security challenges pointed out by Onwudiwe in this piece. His solutions address each: The need for a concerted international assistance to wipe out Boko Haram and effective border-closure on the two specified countries to solve two and three.
Sadly, he signed off this piece with “Dear reader, ‘Insights in Nuggets’ will be off for the Christmas holidays until January 11, 2021. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!,” suggesting that must have been his last work. However, revising the title, “The Perfect Christmas Present for Nigerians,” should be rewritten in conscious reality as “The Parting Present for Nigeria.” While battling the menace of COVID-19 complications, he kept on contributing to national discourses, with the country’s interest at the very top of his heart. A true patriot and lover of Nigeria!
Ebere was a very knowledgeable person, a pragmatic thinker, and a prolific writer who had a unique way of relating with people who were far junior to him in age and experience as colleagues. He was an unrepentant patriot who still had a lot to offer the country. This is a very untimely, shocking, and devastating loss. This pandemic has again taken away a seminal mind and political guru.
Like those in academia, Ndigbo, Nigeria, Africa, and the rest of the world, I will miss him. Like the painful loss of Pius Adesanmi in 2019, someone Ebere himself wrote about, this loss brings too much pain to bear. Mother-earth has once again swallowed one of our brightest minds amid darkness and uncertainties hovering over the land. Mba 1 of Isunjaba, please enjoy my song as you dance to meet Chinua Achebe on the way to heaven.
The beautiful sun woke us up,
To fold our mats and get to work;
He peeps into our rooms,
To herald a new day.
But sluggishly we dragged ourselves,
seeing Ebere still lying flat,
His fortress became his enemy,
The next stage became his soul’s desire.
As the sun sets the hustle and bustle of the day,
Despite the beautiful plans he made,
Our good friend has announced his departure.
Mr. COVID-19 rejected our pleas over the night,
Death summoned Onwudiwe, and he had to leave,
Now, he has left us on the bridge,
Without promising a comeback.
What is the fate of the clothes we spread?
Who will take yours in
Now that you have answered the call of death?
We chatted, laughed, hugged
and embraced the moment in every possible way.
That very night,
You seemed stable and that smile,
Assured me that you would tarry a while more,
I wish death would have told me,
That it was the very last day with you, Ebere, the Chief;
If humility alone could have stopped you,
You would never have gone so soon.
Toyin Falola is professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin.