…First encounter with Col. Ben Gbulie, May his soul Rest In Peace, Archives 2002.
Dr. Okey Ikechukwu is my friend, boss, inspiring elder brother and mentor. I relish the profundity of his knowledge, such that I usually enjoy engaging him in intellectual discourse, especially those of philosophic bent. There is no topic that we consider alien to us. We could wade through empiricism, phenomenology, metaphysics and even occultism. My hottest argument with him was on those occasions when he sought to boil Thomism in the cauldron of his thought. On another occasion, we discussed the intricate problem of knowledge; the distinctions between noumenon and phenomenon; between the unseen real and the unreal seen. Ikechukwu always maintains that “The discovery of what is true and the practice of what is good are the two most important objects of philosophy.” To him, “Philosophy is an enterprise in which the profit is commensurate with the risk.”
But it is not everyday that we “philosophize.” Sometimes we discuss politics generally and the plight of Ndigbo in particular. It was during one of such discussions (2001) that Doc., as I usually call him, informed me that he would travel to the United States of America for the World Igbo Congress. Why should such a conference not take place in Enugu ? What would the conference discuss? Would Igbo leaders, strictly so called, attend the congress? I wanted, generally, to know the relevance of the conference.
When Doc. came back, he expressed satisfaction on the quality of that conference and the calibre of Igbos that attended. He was especially thrilled by the presence of Eze-Igbo, Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. “ Val,” Doc. said, “Ojukwu, as always, speaks passionately about the Igbo question in Nigeria . Doubtless, he is genuinely concerned about the place of the Igbos in Nigeria .” When I pressed for the details of Ojukwu’s contributions to the conference, Doc. jokingly told me to go and see him for my needs, “Afterall, I am aware that it has been long since you met with him last,” he said. “ Would you like me to arrange that?”, he asked.
Back to Lagos from Abuja, the first thing I did was to call Ojukwu’s Lagos home – Villaska Lodge, and informed his Personal Assistant, Mr. Bob Onyema that I would come the next day. As Bob saw me, he almost stifled me with his embrace. Of course, it had been long since I last met with him. I still recall how nice he was to me – he still is – when I was still seeking Eze-Igbo’s acquaintance nine years ago, which has already blossomed into solid friendship. As I drove to Falomo with Bob in his Mercedes Benz car, I told him that I wanted to see Eze-Igbo. Hear Bob’s reply: “Val, Eze-Igbo will come to Lagos on Friday and leave on Tuesday, expectedly, many people will come to see him, such that he would not have enough time for people like you who usually spend hours with him. I don’t know the urgency of what you want to see him for, otherwise I will suggest you travel to Enugu .” Since I had already planned to travel to the East, I did not object, I welcomed the proposal.
Back home, I made the necessary calls, secured appointment with Eze-Igbo on Tuesday at 2 p.m. My friend who was with me could not understand why I was “troubling” myself simply because I wanted to see Eze-Igbo. I reminded him of Aristoppus story while he was seeking Dionysius. Aristoppus smiled patiently when Dionysius first spat upon him: “ A fisherman”, he said, “must put up with more moisture than this to catch even a smaller fish.”
As I was sure of missing the appointment, I called Enugu and informed them that instead of Tuesday, could the appointment be shifted to Wednesday. Getting to his house that day, I saw an ocean of faces waiting to see him: Igbo leaders, politicians from other states, traditional rulers, colleagues, army officials, ex-Biafran soldiers, journalists, priests, etc. When one of his aides, Mr. Agu Christopher told him that I was waiting, he insisted I should be patient since I missed the actual appointment day.
While waiting, I noticed that some of the visitors were relaxed, others fretful. The restlessness of a certain man caught my attention; but that did not dim his liveliness. He talked about how a medical doctor once challenged him, whereupon he told him, in parenthesis, that he too, being the father of two medical doctors, was also a doctor. Not long, he reminded another man, apparently his colleague, to shave off his flowing beard as ”the culture of nursing beard was out of fashion as attested to by our oga (Eze-Igbo), who had even shaved his own beard. ‘Are you Bin Laden?’, he asked. At a point, as he was telling some revealing stories from the vantage position of a principal participant in the Nigerian history, Agu said he would make out time to come to him for some questions. The agile man retorted: “Mr. Agu, if you have any question to ask me you better ask me now. Do you think I am growing younger?
Noticeable also was another restless man. He kept coming in and going out alternately. In his safari suit, he resembled a troublesome philosopher. I later discovered that he was going out to smoke. When the two characters left, I asked Agu who they were. “The former is Colonel Ben. Gbulie; while the latter is Dr. Okey Emordi, Mrs. Joy Emordi’s husband,” he said.
At this point, Major Richard Anieke, one of the old Biafran soldiers came in. He is the Eze-Igbo’s Chief of Staff. He immediately was engrossed in drawing an organigram of Eze-Igbo’s personal staff in Enugu , Nnewi, Lagos and Abuja . Satisfied with the draft, he gave it to the youth corps member attached to Eze-Igbo’s office to give it an artistic touch. The youth corps member was still doing this when one of the Eze-Igbo’s Personal Assistants, Mr. Hyacinth Okonkwo came to informed me that the Eze-Igbo was now calling me. He led me to his office door. The way his aides act, you need nobody to tell you that Eze-Igbo tolerates no idlers, exacts hard work, and maintains strict discipline.
The Eze-Igbo I saw is still his old self. Eyes now quiet but still penetrating, heavy neck and powerful frame: here was a man hard to deceive, sure of himself, fascinating and still aglow with energy. Being a natural conversationalist, he would first put you at ease and give you the impression that your meeting with him is the high point in the day. He will now tell you to feel free and ask him any question, as “No question is a bad question.”
By the time I was through with him, we were able to discuss about the last Igbo World Congress, the emerging Nigerian politics, the statement of General Yakubu Gowon to the effect that Igbos were deceived into a civil war, the vituperative reference to him by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as an “irresponsible rascal” and Resource Control as the cause of the war and many more.
To ask him questions about the welfare of the Igbos in Nigeria is an open sesame to his heart. He assured me that “As long as rivers shall run down to the sea, or shadows touch the mountain slopes, or stars gaze on the vault of heaven; so shall I continue to fight for the good of the Igbos.” When asked how he felt when Obasanjo called him “an irresponsible rascal”, he said: “Nobody can silence me, I cannot afford to remain silent when my own kind suffer.” He counselled Obasanjo against the “intemperate abuse of those who differ with him.” “That is all I can tell you,” he said, “as it is infradig for me to bandy words with Obasanjo.”
After I finished with him, he once again proved that he has a sensual passion for words; he tossed them about in crackling antithesis, fanciful conceits, artful circumlocution, and even facile puns.
While it was turning dark, Eze-Igbo became worried as shown by the ridges around the rubicund nose. He wanted to know if I had a place where I would “put up for the night.” This was contrary to some people’s opinion about him. Closer intimacy with Eze-Igbo reveals that behind the Spartan frame is a friendly gaiety, even at times an affectionate tenderness. Bidding me farewell, he reminded me to always remember my Igboness with all sense of commitments.