Ben Nwabueze: I Lost A Father Figure, Friend

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

EARLY this year, Mr. Damian Obiefule, Prof. Ben Nwabueze’s secretary, called to say Prof wanted to see me. I was elated. The last time I saw him was at the 2018 TheNiche Lecture at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA. He sacrificed all to be at that lecture, spending well over two hours on Third Mainland Bridge, even as his health was failing.

In fact, I had pleaded with him two days earlier not to stress himself coming but he ignored my plea, insisting that he would be there even if on a wheelchair. And he came on a wheelchair. He was extremely faithful to friendship.

Shortly after that, the COVID-19 pandemic set in and I couldn’t visit him. So, when Damian called to say he asked when I would be free to see him, I was over the moon. I told him I would come the next day. Damian was our go-between. Anyone who knew Prof would attest to his peculiar telephone culture – he neither called nor picked calls directly.

That was Damian’s remit. And what an unusual visit it turned out to be. Usually, I would sit in the living room and wait for him to come down. But on that fateful day, as I meant to take my seat, Damian said Prof wanted to see me in his bedroom. Prof was lying down on his bed and immediately Damian announced my presence, there was a huge smile on his face and he spread both arms. I walked straight to the bed, bent down and he put his arms around me in a bear hug.

“Ike, thanks for coming,” he said, his voice husky. “Prof, the privilege is mine. How are you doing? I just came to say hello and wish you well,” I responded. Still holding me tightly, he said, “I am good. Damian has been sending all your messages to me. Please take care of yourself.” The visit lasted about five minutes and we said our goodbyes.

When I got to the door, I looked back one more time. Our eyes locked briefly. As I took my leave, I had a hunch that would be our last meeting. I feel very sad at Prof’s death on Sunday, October 29, but I am not mourning. Only few men can beat their chests and say they achieved all they wanted in life as he did. In our last interview in 2017, he said: “I don’t have any personal regrets. I have achieved all I wanted to achieve. At 86 what else could I want? I am satisfied.

Nwabueze was born in the bucolic community of Atani, Anambra State and his birthday is a matter of conjecture as he narrated in his autobiography, Ben Nwabueze: His Life, Works and Times. “Atani as an illiterate community at that time meant that there was no written record of my birth. There was no system of registration of births and deaths, and no certificate of either event.

The recollections of old family members and certain events that occurred around the time were the usual means of ascertaining the dates of births in the village. These means indicate 1931 as the year of my birth, but the exact day and month in 1931 remain a matter of conjecture. The conjecture … fixes March as the month of my birth, probably 22nd March.”

Though the era defined him, when he admitted being “at bottom, a die-hard traditionalist,” it didn’t negate the fact that he was perhaps one of the most urbane, suave and gracious Nigerians schooled in all the nuances that define the present times. Nwabueze explained why and how he was able to straddle both worlds seamlessly. “People may sometimes wonder how someone schooled in the ways and practices of the learned profession of law, in the ideas and processes of constitutional democracy, and generally in the values and norms of modern life, as I am, has also such strong attachment to African indigenous customs and traditions, as I have.

“The explanation lies partly in the deep respect I have for customs and traditions as an embodiment of the soul of a people, and partly in the fact that as a child growing up in Atani, I was actively involved and participated fully in its traditional and cultural life to such extent that my entire outlook, vision and personality were impregnated by the village’s customs and tradition, to such extent indeed as to make them part of me.”

That was Prof Nwabueze, a man who spent his entire life erecting solid foundation for enduring positive change, a man I had the rare privilege of being inducted into his hallowed loop of friendship. I was told by Damian that the man I revered from a distance fell in love with my column, Candour’s Niche, in the Daily Independent newspaper. Then, I got a call one day from his chambers for a meeting. He had written another book and wanted me to be part of the public presentation. That was the beginning of our very robust relationship.

Prof believed in friendship but at the same time didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was very principled and value-driven in his engagements. An intellectual pugilist, he never ran away from any scholarly fight. He was cerebrally arrogant. And why not? But even in his arrogance, he elevated every discourse with superior argument. When he agrees with you, he does not only stop at reading the article and nodding his head, he sends a “thank you letter.” When he disagrees, he does same or writes his own article.

When we were about to set up TheNiche, I hinted him but forgot to alert him when we hit the newsstands. When he eventually saw the newspaper, he was jubilant and quickly sent a mail. “Dear Ike, what I saw of the publication, TheNiche, was superlative beyond description; it is not of course less than what I had expected. Congratulations!” In celebration of his 85th birthday, he assembled some accomplished scholars to write a book in his honour and invited me to be part of the project.

Again, the ever ubiquitous email. “Dear Ike, knowing how busy you must be putting materials together for future issues of TheNiche every Sunday, I have some trepidation in requesting you to undertake an assignment involving considerable study, thinking and writing. But I do want you to be part of a book project consisting of essays by various contributors, including yourself, with the title, Challenges of Good and Democratic Governance in Nigeria: Essays in honour of Professor Ben Nwabueze. The title of the chapter I would like you to write on is ‘The impact of jumbo remunerations for National Assembly members and the high cost of governance generally on good governance in Nigeria.’”

For me, it was not a mere request. It was an “order” from the Field Marshal of Intellectualism, master of the written word himself. Then came another mail from him in 2016. “I seek permission from TheNiche and yourself, as author of the article titled: Time to rethink Nigeria, to publish the article as appendix in my forthcoming book, The National Question & Corruption – With Form of Government as the third agitating issue. I would be pleased to get your approval as quickly as possible.” That was the relationship I had with the learned professor whose children reverently called “Oduah,” and others “Akunnia.”

Nwabueze, as another great Igbo son, Professor MJC Echerou, noted was everything – “a junior civil servant, high school teacher, law student and teacher, solicitor and advocate in private practice, minister of education in military administration, legal adviser to a large multinational financial institution, adviser to a United Nations board of labour experts, and co-founder and for nearly three decades secretary general of Ohanaeze, the pan-Igbo cultural organisation.”

Then throw into the mix a haul of over 200 peer-reviewed articles, over 100 conference keynote speeches and 34 books, with the first, “The machinery of Justice in Nigeria,” published in 1963, the transcendental and mythical image Akunnia carved for himself looms large. Though he had no personal regrets, he was greatly burdened that Nigeria still crawls at 63. “I am disappointed for the nation,” he once said. “The country is not what I had expected it would be or what I thought I would leave behind when the time eventually comes.”

Prof. Nwabueze lived a charmed life. From his humble beginnings, he grew up to become perhaps Nigeria’s most authoritative legal export while at the same time dominating, in significant ways, the domestic legal environment, becoming the most quoted legal authority in Nigeria. Akunnia humbly wanted to be “remembered as a poor village boy born of illiterate parents who knew the value of education … as a true patriot of Nigeria … as a man passionate about knowledge” when he is gone. But he will be remembered for much more. Goodnight Oduah!


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