It was shocking when the news of Chief Ojo Maduekwe’s death at the age of 71 came to me last week.
My first encounter with Maduekwe was in 2002. As Chief Press Secretary to the first Deputy Governor of Ebonyi State, I had the privilege to accompany Dr. Oko Isu of blessed memory to Ohafia to see Chief Ojo Maduekwe when the latter was Minister for Culture and Tourism. We had gone to solicit his support for the Federal Government to promote the annual fishing festival in Afikpo as a tourist spot and national festival in the mould of Argungun in the North.
My second encounter with him was when he came with his master and benefactor, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to Abakaliki in 2003 on a presidential campaign visit. It was at a time the North and South divide in the state was steaming vicariously. The political logjam and fractious relationship between Dr. Isu and Sam Egwu was tearing the state apart and drawing us closer to the cliff edge of disaster. At Abakaliki Township Stadium, Maduekwe perched on the lectern to preach peace and equity. As a political historian, he took the microphone and walked us down memory lane, like a promenade, reminding the Abakaliki bloc that Sani Abacha created Ebonyi State because of Dr. Akanu Ibiam.
As we entered his country home at Ohafia, the Lenten nature of the man was unmistakable. There was nothing that reminded us we were in the house of a Minister of the Federal Republic. No opulence, no swaggerdash. His house was modest and devoid of the usual ostentation of politicians of his personage. As we sat down in his expansive parlour, he was in his elements, full of humour. He insisted to personally serve us drinks, underscoring the profundity of his humility. This made a deep impression in me and told me volumes about the man: one, that he detested filthy lucre and acquiring money for the sake of it. And two, that his foray into politics which has seen him in various capacities even in military regimes was for service, patriotism and love of fatherland and not for the purposes of primitive accumulation and prebendal interests. This, perhaps, must have informed his decision as transport minister to preach on the need for Nigerians to imbibe the habit of riding bicycles instead of spending millions of naira on porsche cars. To show the way, he kept riding bicycle to the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting at Abuja. Not even the close shave he had with death when he was shoved into the gutter as he rode to one of the meetings could deter or weaken him.
He caught in me the image of a political philosopher of Aristotelian hue. He rationalised every action and idealised every situation. An intellectual and a man of ideas, Ojo Maduekwe liked to confront every idea in debate like Socrates and Plato at Mars Hill. As Nigeria’s ambassador to Canada he preached the gospel of “citizenship diplomacy” where every Nigerian once outside the shores of his country should be a true and worthy ambassador of his country. He was an orator and a grammarian. When the Igbos were agitating for Igbo president, he corrected them and described the agitation as idiotic, opting rather for a president of Igbo extraction.
But the sour point in his political pilgrimage was that he had no discernible political leaning. It was at best eclectic and at worst dexterous.
It will be wrong and obtuse of me to refer to Ojo as an opportunistic politician, but it is pertinent to note that it was difficult to pin him down to one particular ideology at a time when politics of ideas was in short supply in our clime and when he could have elevated our political discourse to a higher realm. I did not see him neither as a social democrat nor a republican but as a typical Nigerian politician who views politics from the prism of business. That was why he could feature prominently in both civilian and military regimes.
Soft spoken and full of humour, Ojo was a man who never looked down on others. He was humble and cultured. Perhaps, his Presbyterian background must have been instrumental in shaping his worldview.
With the way things are in Nigeria today, Ojo must have been prescient when he began to preach his gospel according to bicycle. With the cost of fuel at ₦145 and the price of cars going out of the reach of many middle income Nigerians, Ojo must have seen that a time like this will come in Nigeria when it will make common sense, apologies to Ben Murray Bruce, to shun ostentatious lifestyles and go on bicycles. For this, he was our own Nostradamus, the man who saw tomorrow.
As Ojo passes on, can we learn a lesson from his humanity, his patriotism and his unostentatious lifestyle that was devoid of kleptocracy and itchy fingers?
His departure has created a deep seismic void that will be too difficult to fill in the political scene of Abia state and arguably Nigeria. He was a likeable and an electrifying personality. He poked fun at life and took his exit when he could not make meaning out of the change promised by Buhari.