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Ben Obumselu (1930 –2017): An extraordinary literary life

 

 

By Isidore Diala

Professor Ben Obumselu, who was laid to rest on Friday  June 9, 2017, at his hometown, Oba, in Anambra State, remarked in a 1990 article: “Every man is a lover and follows the Muse.” He meant to point to the legion of human compulsions and fixations, and placed in hierarchical categories the varying ideals that humans strive for or hanker after. For Obumselu, the life of the intellect is a life of unusual distinction and the intellectual Muse is the lover par excellence, being both the ultimate seeker and ultimate sought-after. Prodigiously gifted, extraordinarily learned and informed, oracular in his pronouncements in spite of his unassuming mien, Obumselu was himself the fulfilment of every ambitious student’s deepest dream of the intellectual Muse. And he, moreover, had the patience and the compassion to guide the enthusiastic student on the challenging path to truth.
When I and my generation of students at Imo State University, Etiti, first met Obumselu in the classroom in the early 1980s, the experience was nothing short of a revelation of the enthralling delights of the life of the intellect. Our stars could hardly have been more auspicious. Dreams were engendered; careers were born; eternal discipleships were begun.
Discovering Obumselu and his work has been one of the profoundest experiences of my life. A pioneer student in the honours degree programme in English in the University College Ibadan, Obumselu entered the University in 1951 as the winner of the Open Scholarship for the best candidate in the Faculty of Arts. He maintained the scholarship level of performance for the six years he spent as an undergraduate and won the Faculty Prize as the best graduating student in 1957. He achieved these results while holding the office of the President of the Students’ Union in 1955/56 and the first President of the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) in 1956/57. He was so bright he was offered a scholarship for postgraduate studies at Oxford University England even before he had earned his first degree. On his return from Oxford with a doctorate, Obumselu taught for three years at the University of Ibadan before moving at the onset of the Civil War to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Fleeing the country at the end of the War, Obumselu led the life of a wandering scholar and taught in universities in England, Zambia, Zaire, Botswana, and Swaziland.

Scholar Par Excellence
As a scholar, Obumselu was remarkable for the catholicity of his interests and competences. Regarding cultures as necessarily alive, dynamic, and exogamous, he methodically explored the history of a great diversity of literatures, sculpture, music, languages, religions, and other human endeavours to contend that the mystique of national culture, as he told Kalu Ogbaa in a 1989 interview, is a twentieth century error: “Earlier phases of world history rightly saw culture in terms of useful elements that were available to all men. One language can radiate from its point of origin and enter new areas, just as a tool, a musical instrument, an administrative system, a religion, a new form of literary chant, can flow down the arteries of commerce, conquest and social intercourse”. Obumselu demonstrates this thesis by a careful examination of the impact of Italian poetry on the bardic English tradition in the late 1590s, and of European fiction on the Russian in the mid-nineteenth century. Beyond literature, Obumselu also cites the transformation undergone by European painting on its discovery of African masks, culminating in cubism, as well as the modification of European musical styles by African rhythms. One of the pleasures of reading Obumselu is that every typical piece is an ambitious multidisciplinary tour de force. Understandably, though, his emphasis was on the place of Africa, and especially African literature, in this universal cultural interchange.
Obumselu was particularly distinguished by the rigour and tireless zeal with which he traced ideas to their ultimate sources and followed their varying mutations. Two publications of his set this in particular relief: his 1980 publication in Research in African Literatures, “The French and Moslem Backgrounds of The Radiance of the King” and his 2010 publication also in Research in African Literatures, “Cambridge House, Ibadan, 1962-1966: Politics and Poetics in Okigbo’s Last Years.” In the earlier article, refuting the stereotype of Laye as an African writer drawing on privileged African material to exalt a permissive moral outlook, Obumselu locates the novel in the context of values that derive both from Islam and the twentieth century intellectual novel in France. If Obumselu’s exploration of Islam with its Sufi revivals is astonishing, he equally methodically ransacks and lays bare the oeuvres of many influential French writers and thinkers of the twentieth century to foreground Laye’s indebtedness to the West with regard to his moral vision. Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Julian Green, Francois Mauriac, Gustave Flaubert, and especially Franz Kafka are explored with stunning mastery as writers whose works are instructive for understanding Laye’s craft and preoccupation. Yet the critic is adamant in affirming Laye’s originality:

Sartre, Green, and Kafka are …sufficient indications that Laye was absorbed by the drama of moral and religious consciousness in French fiction. It is apparent too that Laye does not merely criticize the existentialists’ evocation of human alienation and anguish. That body of literature positively enters and qualifies, at least by the technical means that it supplies, what the Moslem writer has to say about the limitations of the created condition. Yet the more closely we study his French background the more impressed we are by the imaginative originality of his adaptation of existentialist thought to his African material and by the comic zest and religious affirmation which he is able to bring to what is essentially a gloomy Gallic tradition.
Meditating on Laye’s The Radiance of the King and its inspiring antecedents, Obumselu writes with obvious passion and easily rises to the full height of his unusually exceptional powers: the analytic rigour, the meticulous logic, the breath-taking revelations and inventiveness, the chiselled, consummate, and compelling phrasing, and the virtual encyclopaedic knowledge that are the hallmarks of his writing are the presiding virtues of “The French and Moslem Backgrounds of The Radiance of the King”.
“Cambridge House, Ibadan, 1962-1966: Politics and Poetics in Okigbo’s Last Years,” like “Christopher Okigbo: A Poet’s Identity” which preceded it, has as its thesis Okigbo’s multicultural filiations. Obumselu’s contention is that Okigbo observes no cultural frontiers but regards the entire baggage of humankind as his patrimony which his genius could subject to a synthesis that is original and life-enhancing. Serving his apprenticeship at the feet of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Stéphane Mallarmé, Okigbo, Obumselu demonstrates, in his pupillage to Leopold Sedar Senghor and oral African (actually primarily Yoruba) literature was equally absolute in his dedication. Examining Okigbo, Obumselu ranges through the poetry of Virgil, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Lorca, Mallarmé, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Senghor, and through the varying genres of indigenous Yoruba poetry as well as the music of Debussy and funeral African drums. In its ambitious scope, as in its depth and thoroughness, “Cambridge House, Ibadan, 1962-1966: Politics and Poetics in Okigbo’s Last Years” is a typical Obumselu offering.

The Biafran Partisan
Obumselu spent the last years of his life as an “Igbo icon” and played an exceptional role quietly, persistently, creatively, selflessly, and almost invisibly in Igbo public life in restructuring the community both in politics and cultural formations. He had similarly played prominent roles in Biafra especially in setting up “His Excellency’s Special Brigade.” Obumselu enlisted in the Biafra Army in late August 1967 on the personal invitation of General Ojukwu and was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel of the Biafra Army. General Ojukwu had called upon his old friend to join him at his command post in Government House Enugu because he had received irrefutable information that an insurrection was brewing in the high command of the Biafra Army and that he would be assassinated. The first job assigned to Obumselu was to keep watch over senior army personnel in the war office (Defence Operations). A month later, Obumselu was asked to set up a separate Biafra Army formation called the “His Excellency’s Special Brigade” to defend General Ojukwu personally in the event of a breakdown in the Biafra Army.


Obumselu went to the military Cadet School in Enugu with a note from General Ojukwu authorising him to choose twenty-four undergraduates who would command the platoons of the three battalions of the Special Brigade. He took the cadets to Akagbe Primary School Awkanawnaw in Enugu where, with General Ojukwu himself, he drilled, trained and indoctrinated them. This was the genesis of the mythical “His Excellency’s Special Brigade” which caused so much vexation among senior army officers. The details of the events of this part of Biafran history are explored in many books, but especially in Ben Odogwu’s No Place to Hide and Alexander Madiebo’s The Biafran Revolution. Eventually, personal friends of Ojukwu in the Biafra Army, Colonel Ralph Obioha, Captain Willy Archibong, Colonel Onwuatuegwu, Sergeant Okilo, and Sergeant Roberts, were enlisted to take the Special Brigade into action. But throughout the war, Obumselu was the Rear Commander of the “S Brigade” which remained a separate military formation as a strategic reserve for emergencies. The insurrection in the Biafra Army did not take place. Half a dozen ring leaders of the planned assassination were tried and executed. But the Special Brigade played a major role in defending Enugu in September/October 1967. If the Special Brigade had not been established and specially equipped at the time, Biafra might have collapsed in September/October 1967.
Obumselu had a special position in Government House and the Biafra Army. In Defence Operations, he was the representative of the Head of State, and General Ojukwu consulted him on matters which required quiet analytical judgement. He was given the official title of War Historian to give him access to all information. In this capacity, he was given official custody of the report of the Atrocities Commission which he eventually published as The Massacre of Ndi Igbo in 1966. A good deal of the time, he was in the war front at Colonel Ralph Obioha’s tactical headquarters. Obumselu eventually took over the intelligence unit of Biafra Defence Operations. His job was to ensure he understood the disposition of the units of the Federal Army and that he could tell in advance what they were planning to do. He was in Defence Operations throughout the war, reporting for duty daily at 10.00 am and closing at 2.00 am in the morning.
Obumselu had another important assignment during the war, moreover. He was a member of the Briefs Committee. With Professor Anthony Modebe as Chairman, other members of the committee were Professors Obumselu, Chieka Ifemesia, Michael Echeruo, Adiele Afigbo, and Drs K.I. Kalu and Stephen Ibeziako. This committee wrote all major propaganda pamphlets before the war, did far more for Biafra publicity at the international level than the Propaganda Directorate, and was the intellectual face of Biafra. The committee also prepared a draft for every major speech delivered by General Ojukwu. The final text was often agreed between Ojukwu and Obumselu, who occasionally had to write an entire speech for General Ojukwu singlehanded. Obumselu was close to Ojukwu throughout his exile in Ivory Coast. He visited Ojukwu three times in Yamoussoukro; took an Anambra State delegation (with the Deputy Governor Roy Umenyi and the NPP Chairman) to visit him before his return; and was with him in Yamoussoukro on the last day when he returned to Nigeria. Obumselu remained a close friend and confidant of General Ojukwu till his death. He deserved all the attention which the Federal Army paid him at the end of the war and for which he embarked on self-exile!

In public life
Obumselu returned to Nigeria in 1981 to serve as Special Adviser to the then Governor of Anambra State, Jim Nwobodo. At the collapse of the Second Republic, he taught for several years at Abia State University, Uturu. Obumselu left Abia State University Uturu in July 1986 to establish an Igbo media house in Lagos. He was chosen for that job by Dr Pius Okigbo, the Military Governors of Anambra and Imo States, and a committee of potential donors to the media house project which included Chief Nnanna Kalu, Dr Hyde Onuaguluchi, Chief Sonny Odogwu, and Professor Ogbonna Irukwu. An expert team of Igbo journalists led by Dr Stanley Macebuh and Dr Jemie Onwuchekwa was privy to and in support of the project. The Military Governors, however, contributed no money to the setting up of the media house and although a web offset press was soon installed in Esomo Close in Ikeja, the project was never fully funded, and for three years Obumselu received no salary and had to survive by engaging in freelance journalism. He had ample time though to engage with young poets and novelists, and to be a frequent broadcaster on Channel TV and AIT. He also worked with the Igbo Speaking Community which soon appointed him a Patron “in recognition and appreciation of (his) passion for the promotion of the cause of the community and of Ndigbo in general.” He likewise worked with Dr Okigbo to establish an Eastern forum which met in rotation in Port Harcourt, Enugu, Uyo, and Calabar. The mission was to re-build the broken solidarity of the Eastern Region. With his old friend, Chief Bola Ige, he re-established dialogue between Eastern and Western Nigeria and a good number of friendly meetings were held in Lagos and Enugu.`
The National Unity Organisation was launched in 1993 in the high noon of the Abacha regime. General Olusegun Obasanjo was the National Leader and Obumselu the Secretary General. The idea was to prepare the ground for a return to inclusive civilian democracy which many people thought was long overdue. Obumselu quickly wrote a constitution for the National Unity Organisation and provided the support literature for the campaign which was planned. He accompanied General Obasanjo in the ill-fated attempt to secure the release of Chief Moshood Abiola from jail in 1993. He only narrowly escaped arrest when General Obasanjo was charged with treason a few months later.
But the time came at long last for the return to civilian democracy. Ndigbo formed the PNF as the political vehicle for entry into the PDP. In Lagos, Obumselu was the Deputy Leader of PNF and the Western Region Director of Dr Alex Ekwueme’s Presidential Campaign Organisation in 1999 and 2003. He presided at Boyle Street Onikan Lagos and established contacts all over Western Nigeria. His personal mobilization of communities and organisations in Lagos was a basic foundation stone on which the PDP was eventually built. Obumselu had enough leverage at this time to enter politics and contest for an elective office or a plum political appointment. But he was not interested in any of that. He loved the backroom, the book stacks and the wrestle with principles in which the great excitement arose from an adventure of ideas. He loved politics and kept very close to it. But he did not want to be a politician.
After the debacle of the Jos Convention of the PDP in 1999, Obumselu believed that Igbo politics was in urgent need of a new configuration; it had to be re-invented. It was easy therefore for him to answer the call of Chief Chekwas Okorie who invited him to take part in the formation of APGA in March 2001. Obumselu presided over the inaugural meeting of APGA in Nike Hotel and Resort in Enugu in which a vast concourse of Igbo organisations from every corner of the nation gathered. Thereafter, following a brief pause, he chaired every meeting of the planning committee until the Party received its INEC certification.
APGA was a monumentally ambitious idea. It aimed to bring the entire Igbo nation into one political community which would give the rest of Nigeria a delightful new taste of the democratic inclusion at the heart of the Igbo tradition. Intellectuals were many in the planning phase of the Party. But the politicians were trickling in; and it was intended to bring in financiers, the churches, the Market Associations, and community leaders. Obumselu was typically eloquent in his first pamphlet titled “A Syllabus for Change” in which the guiding principles of the new party were set out. He followed this up with a magnificent Party Manifesto which many pundits in Lagos press compared favourably with Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group Manifesto of 1951. But APGA began to break up even before it received its INEC registration. Its future would depend upon the ability of its leadership to return to the principles set out in the manifesto.
As the promise of APGA began to fade late in 2001, Obumselu agreed to serve as Deputy President-General of the pan-Igbo cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo. At about the same time, he took up the post of Secretary of the Anambra State Elders’ Advisory Council. The intention was to approach the restructuring of the community from a slightly different perspective. The Igbo democratic tradition could still be re-kindled and re-invented in the easier context of cultural formations even if it was impossible to do so in the smoke and heat of politics. But the matter was not simple. Ideas could do a great deal. But power would always trump ideas in the short term.

Final Years
Scholar, critic, intellectual muse, soldier, adventurer, counsellor, journalist, entrepreneur, hero with a thousand beautiful faces, in a career spanning more than five decades, Obumselu embodied some of the best ideals of both the contemplative life and the active. Significantly, though, in a 2012 interview, he noted that the vocation of the university teacher was the profession he identified with most both mentally and spiritually. Typically, he spent his final years reading voraciously while also at work on a book on the African novel. As always, the planning was painstaking; the procedures and execution rigorous. Old books were reread and new ones were ordered from different parts of the world; new and old journal articles were consulted, and the writing itself was meticulous and unhurried. But the body was steadily giving in to the exertions of a life that always reached out to new horizons. Obumselu’s response though was even greater devotion as he found in scholarly work a refuge from searing pains…
And I turned up on 9 February 2017 at your residence in Lagos, the day you left home for the last time for the hospital. It was evident in a moment why you had called me weeks earlier, no doubt to bid me farewell though you insisted that was far from your purpose. But you had long taken me beyond the frontiers of tears. Your words when they came that afternoon were like haloes, luminous above the grating of rasping coughs and the thundering silence of the intervals. Speech was an act of defiance but you persevered. I strained in vain to decipher meanings that had transcended mortal thresholds. However, a phrase dropped distinct and immortal as you meditated on great literature: the presiding images of human lives. And I was certain that the indescribable conflation of pain and exaltation I discerned on your brows right then was itself a most telling image. You spoke of the state of African literature and scholarship; and of chapters of your book project on the African novel you intended to let me see.
Anxiety was my lot when Fidelia, your wife, called me on 26 February—until she noted you wanted to speak with me. You were much stronger and your voice firmer. We discussed placing your new article on Soyinka’s The Interpreters. A perfectionist to the end, even on the hospital bed, you gave instructions on bibliography! You certainly did not need another publication to get on in life then. Providing signposts to the living had been the deepest inspiration and motivation of your life. Decades earlier, you wrote to me in a letter:
You surely ought to know that what makes a life meaningful is what the person adds to the sum of life. That will be what goes on of me when I am dead. A huge house, a fleet of cars, and big bank balances, are our amulets, our exorcisms against the necessary inconsequence of any individual life. In the end what matters is what survives. That is what is immortal in the man.
You wrote at length on the mystical tradition in Western philosophy which pictures virtue as a kind of dying. In your study of Leo Tolstoy, André Malraux, Iris Murdoch, André Brink, and Ancient Greek tragedy, you highlighted how seeing and knowing the self to be a passing show is an inspiring creative realisation. But especially on Okigbo’s “Elegy of the Wind” you wrote with great admiration and power on how the poet’s acceptance of his mortality and transience beside the imponderable mystery of life liberated him from the fear of death and released his energy for gallant self-forgetful action. Giving selflessly again and again of what was best in you with unstinted generosity, you trailed the intimations of your immortality. Thus do we rise early, as the great poet wrote, from mourning into morning.
Isidore Diala, Professor Obumselu’s former student, is Professor of African literature at Imo State University, Owerri.

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2 Comments

  1. Okey Nwofor, Physics Department, Imo State University 14th June 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Another pulsating piece from Prof. Isidore Diala, the deep thinking wordsmith in the mould of his teacher- Obumselu. Adieu Prof. Obumselu

  2. Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba, VC FUNAI 14th June 2017 at 10:49 pm

    Thank you Prof. Diala.
    Couldn’t get around writing in Prof. Obumselu’s honour.
    You did it, and did it typically excellent.
    May his soul rest in peace.

    Feel consoled, like you did this on behalf of all of us, the kids of that era, the era that tasked their intellect and resolve.
    They seem lined up, falling off a tree as ripened fruits in a unique season.
    Perhaps, gone to meet his friend and report what a season, the kids of the era and the ones following, seem to have engineered.
    Doesn’t seem like anything died, living on, and sprouting as if dew fell on dormant seeds, dormant seeds transported in time by literature. Reminding us again of the immortality and resilience of the pen, above the bullet.
    If we had a message to them, delivered through him, would be, what a season we are in.
    May his soul rest in peace.

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