There are men and there are men; there are men whose lives count; there are men who have left behind indelible footprints on the sands of time. There are men who by virtue of their work here on earth, heaven can rightly say, “these are my beloved sons in whom I am well pleased.” There are men whose souls are assured of rest in eternity.
Mike Okhai Akhigbe is in that rare mould! “Okhai,” in Etsako language, simply means an achiever. Akhigbe was an achiever.
Mike Okhai Akhigbe (September 29, 1946 – October 28, 2013), was a Vice Admiral in the Nigerian Navy who served as de facto Vice President of Nigeria (Chief of General Staff) during the General Abdusalami Abubakar-led military rule from 1998 till the termination of military government in Nigeria in 1999. He had served as Military Governor of Ondo State from 1985 to 1986, and Military Governor of Lagos State from 1986 to 1988, after which he was appointed Chief of Naval Staff, the highest-ranking officer of the Nigerian Navy, and subsequently the Chief of General Staff, the highest-ranking military officer of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He died in the United States on October 28, 2013, after suffering from cancer for a few years.
Early life and education
Akhigbe was born on September 29, 1946, in Fugar, Aviawu clan, Etsako Central Local Government Area of Edo State, and was educated at Afenmai Anglican Grammar School, Igarra, from 1961 to 1965. He attended the Nigerian Defence Academy, Royal Naval School of Maritime Operations, Dryad, Southwick, UK, Command and Staff College, Jaji, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, University of Poitiers, Rouan, France, and the International Defence Management Program at the Naval Postgraduate School, California, USA.
He was the Principal Welfare Officer of the Nigerian Navy flagship, NNS Aradu, Military Governor of Lagos and Ondo states, Director, Naval Plans, Naval Headquarters, Flag Officer commanding the Eastern Naval Command and Chief of Naval Staff. In 1998, he became the Chief of General Staff and Vice President of Nigeria. He was awarded the honour of the Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), in 1998 and an honorary doctorate by the University of Benin (2003). His military decorations include Force Service Star, Meritorious Service Star, and Defense Service Star.
Before his death, Akhigbe was an attorney with specialisation in maritime law. He was also a seasoned businessman with substantial investments in real estate. Akhigbe is fondly remembered for his numerous services to the nation, especially his role during the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, when he was the Chief of General Staff to General Abdusalami Abubakar.
Akhigbe attracted electricity and a network of roads to his Fugar community. He helped create, and brought the administrative headquarters of Etsako Central Local Government Area of Edo State Nigeria to Fugar City. He had also attracted the Nigerian School of Immigration to Fugar, an idea that was abandoned soon after he left office.
As governor of old Ondo State, he was the single most important factor in the rehabilitation of the Teacher’s College, Ekiti, later called Ondo State College of Education. Admiral Akhigbe, then a Commodore and Military Governor, approved the appointment of USAID-Harvard-trained educationist, Dr. Sam Adebayo Adewuya, as the sole administrator of the college, with the sole command of returning the dilapidated college to functional level within three years. The college has since evolved into the University of Education, Ekiti State.
Akhigbe was a member of the elite class of the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) Course 3. According to military sources, Course 3 (the third set of cadet officers to pass through the NDA), are the most political ever in the history of the Nigerian military. His mates are David Mark, Tunde Ogbeha, the late Gen. Victor Malu, Gen. Olanrewaju, late Abdukarim Adisa, and Rear Admiral A.O.S. Okoja, just to mention a few. These are men who went on to become bigwigs in Nigeria’s political firmament.
Speaking at Akhigbe’s funeral mass, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan (President, 2010-2015), described Akhigbe as an exemplary officer and gentleman, and a consummate administrator who displayed outstanding leadership. Jonathan hoped that Akhigbe’s sterling qualities would inspire Nigerians to be more committed to providing greater service to the country.
Also, upon his death, the 7th Nigerian Senate under the leadership of Senator Mark, urged the Federal Government to immortalise Akhigbe for his imperishable contributions to the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria.
The Senate said, “Mike Akhigbe’s life was defined by the virtues of hard work, fearlessness, commitment and loyalty.” Others said, “he was a conscientious and dutiful officer who was in all respects admirably equipped for his roles in the military and the larger society.”
Some others captured him as an achiever who attached great importance to the development of the human mind.
On his part, the Senate Leader in the 7th Senate, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, described this great personality as one of the major contributors to the entrenchment of the current democratic government in Nigeria:
“I knew him as someone who was a true officer and a true gentleman and always a man of principle.
“The legacy that we are enjoying today is the legacy of Akhigbe and Abdulsalam, who kept faith with the transition to democratic governance,’’ Ndoma-Egba said.
Senator Mark, in a tribute, described Akhigbe as a patriot who was “extremely concerned about the unity of the country’’.
Mark said: “Admiral Akhigbe was a patriot in the true sense of the word. All through his life, things that affected the nation worried him so much.”
Even after retirement, Akhigbe plunged into the academic world, and earned LL.B (Hons.) in the University of Lagos and LL.M in Malta, specialising in International Maritime Law.
For Okhai Akhigbe, he was known to be always quietly arrayed, and he was always humane when he talked. But still, he fluttered pulses when he said, “good morning,” and he glittered when he walked. A handsome man, Akhigbe was empathic, with a strong listening capacity.
Akhigbe was a visionary leader, a steeled man of character, an incorruptible man, a courageous voice for justice and a clear moral compass. By paving the way for democracy of our dear nation, he exemplified love for all, wisdom and compassion. Akhigbe stands as an inspiration to us all who were privileged to be close to him. I can never forget his ever expansive smile and gentle demeanor, nor his steely resolve and wonderful sense of humour, always calling me “the youngest chief.” Akhigbe, GCON, was the leader of the Afenmai people before his death. He was a disciplinarian who lived a Spartan life, where his peers luxiriated in opulence.
I miss a dear leader, elder brother and friend. While remembering one of Africa’s most distinguished leaders, as an exemplary selfless great mind, who contributed immeasurably to the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, his legacy beckons on us to follow his immortal examples in striving to protect human rights, dignity, reconciliation and justice for all.
Of Akhigbe, we can rightly enthuse, employing Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight. I have completed the race. I have kept the faith.”
Admiral, sir, may the efforts of our heroes past never be in vain, even as Nigerians applaud you four years after you shed mortality for immortality.
Sleep tight, brother Mike Akhigbe; you finished well and you finished strong. Enjoy a well-deserved rest in eternity.
God bless Afenmailand! God bless Etsako people. God bless Edo State. God bless Nigeria.