By Anote Ajeluorou
Nigeria is dire need of role models. From the political, economic, academic to other fields of endeavour, Nigeria as a nation has recorded more failures and disappointment than the optimism and fervour that heralded her independence from colonial rule. Ironically, the failure and disappointment largely stemmed from the actions or inactions of men saddled with steering the ship of state.
Yet in this failure of a nation is the personal example of successful achievement of certain men and women such that they are unarguably the models society needs to chart a path to a bright future yet again. One such men in Nigeria’s public space whose life is a shining example to many is the erudite scholar, legal luminary, politician, writer and community leader, Prof. Ben Nwabueze. He hails from Atani in Ogbaru Local Government Area of Anambra State.
Now in his 80s, Nwabueze’s life and works, which he has just published as Ben Nwabueze: His Life, Works and Times – An Autobiography (Volumes 1 & 2; Gold Press Limited, Ibadan; 2012) span the decisive generation that has shaped modern Nigeria. He was among the privileged few that took advantage of one shinning light of colonialism – EDUCATION – and exploited its merits to the fullest. Nwabueze has since been part of the shaping that a new nation just emerging from foreign domination needs to survive in a modern, dynamic world that is ever changing.
His academic, scholarly works in law have served as foundational materials for legal education in the country and beyond. Nwabueze is a holdhold name in the legal field and has been an outstanding personality in the country in various fields.
Nwabueze’s autobiography is a compelling story of a man who rose from the grips of poverty just like many Nigerians, nay Africans and steadily climbed the ladder of success from sheer hard work and exceptional brilliance as a young boy in his native Atani village school. Indeed, Nwabueze’s books read as counterpoise materials to the great many fictional works of great literary figures. The first volume particularly provides counterpart reading material to such works as Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and other such works that describe typical village life as it was lived before and during colonial rule in parts of Africa. It renders faithfully the economic, social, political, religious, moral and legal systems and practices as they originally were practised and their subsequent erosion by western lifestyles through colonialism and Christianity.
Nothing escapes Nwabueze’s lens, having himself lived through it in his boyhood years and tasted its many sides and actively engaged in its happy and sometimes not so happy aspects. In all this, the legal giant regrets the erosion of many good sides of the original lifestyles of Africa as symbolised by practices in his Atani community. Also, his western lifestyle has also sensitised him enough to some unsavoury aspects of those African practices that need to make way for new, better ones that promote human happiness and unity. In his native Atani, for instance, Nwabueze has worked tirelessly to ease the negating impact of the osu caste system to be mitigated and for such individuals to be integrated into the community fully as co-equals.
HAVING dispensed with the formative years of his life in Atani, Onitsha, Enugu and leaving for London to study law at University of London and obtaining a doctoral degree and consequently teaching and legal practice in volume one; having laid the foundation for some of the beliefs and ideas and personalities that shaped his life, Nwabueze turns his attention to the later part of his life.
In volume two, Nwabueze turns his gaze on the activities, organisations and vocations that later shaped his lifelong engagements, particularly his foray into public life in his patriotic zeal to serve Nigeria and make a better place for all Nigerians, especially the poor masses.
From volume one, he recalls how he became involved in Ohaneze Ndi Igbo, a socio-cultural group set up in 1976 to engage a victorious Nigerian to its responsibility to a defeated Igbo nation just emerged from a horrendous civil war, with signs of marginalization already beginning to rear its ugly head. He was its secretary-general for several years thus its spokesperson. By so doing, he help in raising the profile of all marginalised people in the country to agitating for their rights to be accorded equal opportunities in all spheres of life. But Nwabueze wasn’t just a champion of a marginalised Ndi Igbi, his kith and kin across the Niger; he felt the leadership gulf in the political space and how less and less it served ordinary Nigerians and the need to fight it through both constitutional and advocacy means.
In this wise, he and some like-minded, respected individuals formed The Patriots. As he put it, “…I have been chairman of an organisation of eminent Nigerians called The Patriots, an organisation recognised and respected throughout the country as a patriotic organisation, which makes me a leading patriot. Nigeria, as the object of my patriotic and nationalistic feelings, was not just an idea existing in the mind or in the imagination”.
But he is quick to argue that as patriotic as he considers himself, Nigeria is yet to emerge as the desired nation, with its inability to fashion a viable system of political co-existence that best addresses its multi-ethnic groupings and bring them into harmony, like true federalism, a system he has consistently advocated. He thus asserts, “Ardent Nigerian patriot and nationalist that I am, and much as I frequently desire it, I never entertained the illusion that Nigeria is a nation. For, it is not – not yet. Nigeria is a state, not a nation”.
This realisation has formed a large part of his advocacy for constitutional democracy and social justice to be entrenched in the Nigerian polity. With a deep grasp of the subject matter from his training in law, Nwabueze came to view constitutional democracy “as the best form of government for humankind, which went hand-in-hand with the passion for the customs and traditions of my beloved hometown, Atani”. The passion also led to the writing of three defining volumes, Constitutionalism (1973), Presidentialism (1974) and Judicialism (1977).
But he is mindful that constitutional democracy alone is not enough to drive society forward, as has often been the sad case with many African countries that lay pretence to it. Social justice is its necessary counterpoint that must also be pursued with equal vigour as the means to provide comfortable living conditions for the generality of the masses to elevate them from suffering. It’s for this reason, he says, “Advocacy for justice and amelioration of the condition of the under-privileged members of society became yet another passion of my life and, as in the case of constitutional democracy, I seized every opportunity, spared no efforts, and employed every platform and every avenue available to me in the form of public lectures, writings to propagate it”.
Nwabueze leaves nothing out in his explosive autobiography. And he pulls several punches in the process on which many Nigerians would take him on. He relates his troubled eight months’ tenure as Education Secretary and the crises that beset the education sector at the time, the many strikes and how he was able to manage them.
This was also the time he served under Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, a man he has painted a portrait in his book. But Nwabueze does so after a caveat, when he says, “An important point of which anyone writing IBB must first put into account is that he was victim of a system of absolute power, and that anyone else in such a position of absolute power would also be prune, to a greater or lesser extent, to its evils influences and allurements. No one in the whole history of humankind has been known to be above the allurements of absolute power, and few are known to give up so willingly”.
While not entirely exonerating the aberration that military rule was and its principal actors of which Babangida was one, Nwabueze would rather berate Nigerians for allowing themselves to be so ruled for such a long period, with the civil populace not being able to challenge it. He goes on to admonish, “Such power in the hands of one individual is most awesome indeed. I, myself as Secretary for Education and Youth Development, had experienced its alluring and seductive influence. It’s power that should never be entrusted to one man or a junta of men”.
Chapter 9 of volume two of Ben Nwabueze… would excite many readers, as it paints the picture of Babangida, with its enigmatic question, ‘What kind of man is he?’ Many will be amused by Nwabueze’s portraiture of Babangida, just as others will be outraged by it though insider view it may seem, as perhaps a sort of indulgence for the man under whom he served for eight months. Indeed, it just might not dispel what most Nigerians already take for granted and therefore in stark contrast to Nwabueze’s portraiture of the man who held the nation in the jugular for eight long years. This chapter echoes Tony Momoh’s book, Prince of the Niger that dressed Babangida in saintly robes. It just might ring false to many ordinary Nigerians that suffered eight years of the man’s misrule that plunged the nation into economic hell.
Nwabueze describes him as “Easy. Nice and down-to-earth, he is so delightfully chatty without being talkative, and puts everyone around him completely at ease… For the whole period of my tenure, I experienced nothing of the Machiavellianism; nothing of the Maradona-like skill in dribbling people to achieve his ends; nothing of the smooth manipulator of men and events; nothing of the crafty, unreliable, ever-weening autocrat interfering in, and directing, all affairs of state from his office or bedroom. He might well be crafty. How else really could he have survived in that office for eight long years amid all the tumults of social and political discord?”
NEVERTHELESS, Nwabueze’s autobiography is indeed a treasure in the rereading of Nigeria’s historical evolution. Having been born at a time of political ferment and when colonialism was at its last gasp and taken advantage of the privileges of formal education to heart, Nwabueze’s life story runs parallel to his country’s. He has also been part of shaping his country’s socio-political fortunes. Ben Nwabueze… is certainly a great read not just because of what he has written about but also his style, which stems from a cultivated mind, a man exposed early to the joys of reading the greats that shaped world events.
So that his literary skill makes the two volumes a joyful exercise in tracing the trajectory of a great Nigerian mind, starting from his small, narrow world of Atani village to the great stage of a London University and his having to straddle a vast socio-political space in the affairs of his country Nigeria. This book is commended to every reader desirous of glimpsing a great mind and a country in a flux!