Stories by Louis Ibah Flying on an Ethiopian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Lagos, Nigeria took Mrs. Anthonia Ukpeh, about two days. It wasn’t a very pleasant journey for the Akwa Ibom State secondary school principal, considering the absence of direct flights between Nigeria and Malaysia as the stopover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for…
When I called to intimate him, of his emergence as winner of the prestigious, The Sun Lifetime Achievement Award for 2015 (which was presented to him in 2016), he was pleasantly surprised and ecstatic. His voice showed it. He was not one to hide his emotions.
“I am deeply honoured. I am quite delighted. I thank you very much. You mean you people found me worthy to receive this award?”
I honestly found his response surprising, if not a bit shocking. Here was a former two-time governor of old Midwest region, and later, Bendel State; a courageous soldier, visionary leader, sports administrator par excellence, a pathfinder and pacesetter, authentic father and founder of Bendel State, the original Bendelite, a man of uncommon accomplishments. Here was a man, who certainly towered above his contemporaries, physically and mentally, and much above today’s current leaders at both state and national levels, in sheer superlative achievements in infrastructural revolution, roads, health, education, sports, among others, expressing obvious surprise at his being selected for a Lifetime Achievement Award? But such was the humility and decency of Dr. Samuel Osaigbovo Ogbemudia, a retired General of the Nigerian Army. He epitomised the saying that, to be great is to be humble and modest. He was not loud; he didn’t shove his accomplishments in anyone’s face, and was accessible to both old and young, educated and illiterate; rich and poor. He was a man of the people, a man for all seasons. Little wonder, politicians of all hue, the genuine and fake; the real and pretentious, all gravitated towards him. I told him he was eminently deserving of the award, which we believe was even long overdue. “ There are other deserving Nigerians. That you found me deserving is something I must thank you for,” he said.
He expressed his gratitude to The Sun publisher, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, with whom he had had a long, personal relationship. He looked forward to meeting and receiving The Sun team at his Benin City residence.
He looked forward to our meeting, after a long while. But, I couldn’t make the journey with The Sun team, for exigencies of duty. So, I never got round to meeting with him. And I would never have the chance to do so again on this side of the divide. Reason: The man died. The great man yielded his mortality for immortality at 84.
And Benin City, Edo State, and indeed, Nigeria has not been the same since then. William Shakespeare was truly on point when he declared: “There are no comets seen when beggars die, but heaven blazes forth the death of princes.”
How true. Condolences, tributes and reminiscences have continued to flow since the death of Ogbemudia; from all parts of the country, and from all segments of the society, the testimony and testament have been the same: He was a great and visionary leader, who built and nurtured a toddler state to the giant and pacesetter entity it became, in the comity of states.
In the field of sports and education, his footprints are etched in the sands of time. The Ogbe hard court, which brought international tennis stars to Benin and gave fillip to the careers of the Nduka Odizors of this world; the Afuze Sports Institute, which birthed world beaters like Isaac Ikhuoria and others.
How can anyone forget the Midwest Institute of Technology, which late transformed into the University of Benin; the Benin Technical College, for technological advancement of the state; the Agbede farms; Bendel Brewery; Delta Glass factory; Bendel Insurance; The Nigerian Observer, and so many other establishments, which clearly marked Ogbemudia out as a man certainly ahead of his time.
In the area of roads construction and rehabilitation, the man simply displayed an aggression and passion yet unrivalled in the history of the region and state. Today, in some parts of the old Bendel State, the only roads the people remember and recollect seeing, are the ‘Ogbemudia roads.’ Even with the advent of civilian rule since 1999 and the billions sunk on roads across the nation, Ogbemudia’s landmark achievements in roads construction remain unbeaten. Such was the man’s sense of industry, passion and dedication to duty. Even in death, he will continue to loom large in the people’s hearts and subconscious. He lived in their hearts because he had the people at heart, because he worked for the people with all his heart and might.
For me, Ogbemudia was the original Bendelite; in fact, the number one Bendelite. He epitomised the spirit of old Bendel, which was about excellence, doggedness and never-say-die , winning spirit. He made the slogan Up Bendel (Bedel to the Wafarian) popular and a symbol of pride to all those who inhabited that geographical space. He made us a people to envy, to love, to court, to respect, because Bendel in the time of Ogbemudia meant the best, the best in all human endeavours.
When he took over from Professor Ambrose Alli (another great leader) as governor of Bendel State, in October 1983, the hope was that he would rekindle the magic of Old Bendel. But, the Buhari coup of December 31, 1983, truncated that dream.
But he continued to serve Edo State, even in retirement from active party politics, offering his advice when sought, which he gave generously, as long as it would be beneficial to the people. Ogbemudia, in my personal assessment, was not pro-party, but pro-Edo people. His support was for anyone, who had the Edo people and Edo State at heart. He was not God, and could have supported those who pretended to love the people, while lining their pockets with filthy lucre.
I had personal and intimate encounters with him, for close to 20 years, if not more. Many unforgettable. He was a man full of wisdom, humour and wit. He could poke fun at himself and have a hearty laugh. He told me the reason he became more science inclined. After the overthrow of Gowon, they both were exiled in London, and pondered their future. While Gowon chose to read Political Science at Warwick, he (Ogbemudia) picked law. But there was a snag. He often slept in class, while lectures were going on. So, he bought a pair of dark glass and a hat, so no one would catch him in the act. But he was wrong. When papers were being passed round, it got stuck when it got to him. That way, it was clear he had been dozing.
“To avoid embarrassing myself, I went to enrol in an engineering school,” he said. “There is no way you could sleep with the noise of machines and engines!”
He also told me the story of a prophet, who came to see him, while he was military governor. The man had waited for hours to see him, that he had a message for him. He had refused to see him, because he had no appointment and he was busy. But he was prevailed upon by some of his commissioners to, at least, give him a listening ear. Reluctantly, he obliged. When the prophet came in, he shocked all.
“Your Excellency, you must be careful of all these people around you. They don’t mean well for you.” These were the same persons, who had prevailed on the governor to see the prophet. They were dumbfounded! Of course, he dismissed the prophet.
The lesson, he learnt from that encounter. “Those you help might be your biggest detractors. They helped him to see me, and he ended up descending on them. They were shaking. But I knew he was a fake prophet.”
Ogbemudia also believed in loyalty; loyalty to friends and family. He told me the reason he agreed to serve as Abacha’s minister of labour. “Abacha once saved my life. During the civil war, I could have been killed. But, at great risk to his life, he facilitated my exit from the North. I can never forget that.”
He was a complete family man, who loved his children and grandchildren to bits. I watched him many times play with his younger children at his Dolphin, Lagos residence before he retired to Benin City. I saw him and Sam junior, and his other children interact. He didn’t come across as a strict, no-nonsense dad; he was affable, genial, friendly and chatty.
He loved to have a good meal and a good laugh. He was a quiet intellectual. He loved books. He loved people. He loved to serve. And he served well. Now, he’s no more. It is his legacy of service, more than anything else that will be remembered and is being celebrated. Good night, great one!