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Ogbemudia: When the Iroko fell

After carefully reading prose craftsman, Eric Osagie’s unputdownable elergy on the transition of 83-year-old, Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia (“The original Bendelite is gone”, The Sun of yesterday), I felt there was nothing left for other writers, without being accused of plagiarism or breach of copyright. To describe the late Brigadier General Ogbemudia as an iroko while alive is to diminish his towering stature, imperishable credentials and intellectual fecundity. Perhaps, one may have to delve into the rare lexicography of colourful and flamboyant politician, Dr. K. O. Mbadiwe, to find the right words: Ogbemudia was simply a man of timbre and calibre, iroko, obeche and caterpillar, all rolled into one. 

In 1967, I was a little boy in primary 4. I had carried garri in “Ughughu” raffia bag on my head to follow my mother from my village, Iviukwe, to sell at Agenebode market. The distance, which could be covered today in 10 minutes with a car, usually took us over two hours of trekking and trudging on sandy, undulating and bushy paths, with fire flies, owls, reptiles and rodents having a field day on our way. There was no television (did not watch one till I was in form 2, in secondary school in 1971). The little radio owned by my poor village farmer father intermittently bellowed, “to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done; ochebe hey, ochebe hey”, and “Go on with One Nigeria (Gowon)”. I was told by my petty trader and farmer parents that a war was then raging. In my little boy’s mind, I could not comprehend why people would be killing one another.

On this particular day, we had left Iviukwe for Agenebode market, at 4am, intending to get there early enough to sell our garri to Idah traders, who crossed the River Niger to Agenebode with canoes and boats. That was when the baptism of fire took place. As dawn approached at Agenebode junction (Igegbode), I suddenly beheld soldiers wearing green helmets covered with camouflage leaves, well starched camouflage uniform and heavily polished black boots. They were intimidating, fearsome and menacing. I was scared.

I had never beheld such a frightful sight. I screamed in horror, in gripping fear, threw my garri sack away, and ran to no particular destination. The soldiers saw my innocence, laughed and beckoned on me to return. I held my mother by her apron for the remaining three kilometres to the market proper. I was later to learn these were Nigerian soldiers, who had come to flush out the Biafran soldiers from Agenebode, using the Idah axis, during the civil war.

This background is necessary to give you an idea of how Ogbemudia came as Military Governor to open up every nook and cranny of this old Midwest Region (created 9th August, 1963, from old Western Region, by popular plebiscite); later Bendel State, and now Edo and Delta. The twins are “the heart beat of the Nation (Edo) and “the big heart” (Delta). The coinage was a culmination of the vision and uncommon transformational compass of one man, Ogbemudia.

My first real encounter with this phenomenon of an homosapien was in 1973. I was then in form four at St. Peter’s College, Agenebode. The new Okumagbe of Weppa Wanno Kingdom, Francis Eruah Omoh, was being crowned. Ogbemudia came to Agenebode to present him with the Staff of Office. There emerged an ebony dark, handsome, tall swagging soldier in well starched uniform and a swagger cane. I could still picture him today in my mind’s eye. I was part of the cultural troupe led by two classmates, Isah Okhosagha and Clement Omozuapo, that entertained the august visitor. I was active in the Debating, Dramatic and Press Societies. My love for writing and acting had developed in primary school, where as a primary six pupil, we acted Wole Soyinka’s “The trials of Brother Jero”; and in the secondary school, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. I could still quote verbatim, till date, nearly the whole of Julius Caesar, starting with “hence home, you idle creatures…”

We screamed, shoved, pushed, shuffled, to catch a glimpse of this soldier, this transformationer wizard, who etched his name forever in the sands of time. That path from Iviukwe to Agenebode was later to be transformed into a major highway, that remains till date, as one of “Ogbemudia roads”, nearly 50 years later. Like an elephant, it is difficult to comprehend a complete picture of S.O.O. From his rare virtue of humility (which he adorned like a second skin), to his gregariousness, sense of humour and ever widening smiles, Ogbemudia remains in the pantheon and hall of fame of prodigies that developed Midwest region, giving the people a genuine sense of governance. He brought fame to Midwest people and Bendel (he was also a civilian governor in 1983).

This “Up Bendel” colossus established the famous Bendel Insurance and Bendel Insurance Football Club. His template for rapid infrastructural and industrial development stamped its feet in Bendel Brewery, Nigerian Observer, Agbede Farms, Warrake Farms, Delta Glass Factory, Ugheli, Midwest Institute of Technology (which transformed to University of Benin), Benin Technical College, Afuze Sports Institute and the famous Ogbe Hard Court International Tennis Competition that threw up the likes of David Imonite, Lawrence Awopegba and Nduka Odizo (the Duke).

I got closer to this larger-than-life icon at the 2005 National Political Reform Conference, where I chaired the Civil Society, Trade Union, Labour and Media Sub Committee. He called me his son. He was simply a father, a counselor, a philosopher, a calm analyst, whose insight into national issues was incredibly penetrating, fecund and simply luminous. A visionary Pan-Nigerian, Patriot, and distinguished Elder Statesman, Ogbemudia was simply fantastic.

I can summarise Ogbemudia’s life in three latinic words: Vini, vidi, vici (he came, he saw, he conquered). Adieu, father of modern Edo and Delta States. Farewell, tested nationalist and soldier of untrammeled valour and courage.

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