I awoke a week ago to an email from C. Don Adinuba, one of my closest and most long lasting friends. The email bore dismal news: Benedict Ebele Obumselu had died two days earlier.
I suspect that many readers of this column are unfamiliar with the name. And therein, I suggest, lies the profound pity, indeed the source of the deep pain I felt on learning about Obumselu’s passing.
I did a quick online audit, curious to see what kind of ripples had been triggered by the man’s death. To my consternation, but hardly much surprise, Obumselu’s final mortal bow had provoked little buzz. Except within a small circle of aesthetes and humanist academics, the man’s passage had gone unremarked. To invoke the late poet Christopher Okigbo, one of Obumselu’s numerous extraordinary admirers, a bright star had for eighty-seven years danced among us and finally departed. Yet we, who ought to have been enchanted by the star’s luminescence, were, for the most part, either oblivious or indifferent.
I hazard that, had we lost one of the knaves, charlatans and mediocrities who occupy the space of political chieftains/thieftains in Nigeria, multitudes of Nigerians would have donned their most elaborate mourners’ aso ebi, posting and tweeting their sympathies. In his political treatise, The Trouble with Nigeria, Chinua Achebe memorably described Nigerians as a people who had mastered the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Our habit of celebrating the mindless mis-shapers of our collective dreams, whilst scorning our ethical best and brightest visionaries, speaks to our perverse genius for mistaking loudness for substance, villainy for heroism.
Many, perhaps most, Nigerians did not know who Obumselu was because he did not own an oil block; he was never a contractor who would pocket the mobilization fee and then abandon a project; he was no glutton for grand-sounding but hollow traditional titles; and he was no hankerer after debased honorifics that are routinely bestowed on the least admirable of Nigerians.
He was, instead, one of the most solid—in ethical and intellectual terms—of Nigerians. Indeed, he was one of the brainiest Nigerians of any generation. And this is far from a subjective assessment of mine. Leslie Harriman, one of Nigeria’s finest diplomats and public servants, an erstwhile Permanent Representative to the United Nations, characterized Obumselu as “the best of my generation.” Bola Ige, a superb lawyer, intellectual politician and famed rhetorician, echoed Harriman’s evaluation. The poet, scholar and biographer, Obi Nwakanma, quoted Mr. Ige as saying that Obumselu “was so brilliant, and so widely read in the classics.” In an encyclopedic biography titled “Christopher Okigbo, 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight,” Nwakanma reported that Obumselu “took one of the early honors degrees in English at Ibadan, graduating at the top of his class in 1957.” He added, “In later years, Ben Obumselu helped to shape [Christopher] Okigbo’s poetic impulses towards aesthetic clarity…Okigbo learnt early to trust Obumselu’s judgment as a more rigorous craftsman.”
Those verdicts, rendered by men of considerable stature who knew Obumselu closely, capture something essential about the quality of the man’s uncommon and deeply elevated mind. As C.Don Adinuba noted in his appreciation of the man, Obumselu’s intellectual prowess was so outstanding that Oxford invited him, after his first degree at Ibadan, to enroll for a doctoral degree.
I first became aware of Obumselu’s uncommon brilliance in the early 1980s when Adinuba and I followed his occasional appearances on TV to discuss political developments. Even though he was then aligned with the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), Obumselu’s pronouncements were shorn of partisan rancor and sectional cant. Urbane in speech, patrician in bearing, but absolutely approachable, Obumselu approached politics with a deeply philosophical cast of mind: he let the facts lead, refraining from the temptation to twist his analysis to conform to a given political agenda.
Once we met him in person, it was easy to see why. He was not just a man of stupendous learning, he had, in addition, leavened his staggeringly impressive intellect with moral sagacity. We were fortunate to know him at a time that, looking back, constituted our most intense and defining intellectual and ethical apprenticeship. It was a time when Enugu brimmed with a certain kind of political and intellectual capital, affording us the opportunity to spend time with such noble personages as Mokwugo Okoye, Akanu Ibiam, Samuel Gomsu (SG) Ikoku, and Obumselu. The benefits one derived from those encounters, and from the palpable intellectual ferment, have endured.
There are two ways in which the trajectory of Obumselu’s life served as indictment of the particular society in which he was born. There’s the fact that his life as an academic in Nigeria was rather short-lived. Had he lived in a society with a healthier recognition of the role of intellectual power, Obumselu might have been encouraged—with research grants and other endowments befitting a first class scholar—to spend more years in academia, inspiring generations of students and modeling excellence for his colleagues. Two, I believe that a man like Obumselu, whose grounding in the humanities was intimidatingly vast, would have written several seminal texts if he had been fortunate to live in a society that prized intellectual matters. Instead, he spent many years in a country where a man who treasures the life of the mind must contend with incessant power failures, the anti-intellectual policies of philistines in power, and a pervasive antipathy to intellectual production, a cynicism compressed into the dismissive phrase, “Na book we go chop?”
Sadly, then, even though many Nigerians did not know who Obumselu was, were not aware of the epical scale of his brilliance, he knew us all too well. And he must have lived out every moment of his life, I fear, conscious of the cruel irony that fate had bracketed him inside Nigeria. How so painful it must have been for this intellectual giant to find himself sequestered in a space that regards minds questing for knowledge as wretchedly eccentric, a society, in fact, that counts deep knowledge as poverty, but venerates the craven pursuit of materialism as virtuous.
If Nigeria would ever rise from its cesspit of impoverishment, if it would ever break its ruinous run as a peacock society, one where what’s most gaudy is regarded as most valuable, here’s one sign of that rejuvenation: more and more of us would be familiar with the Ben Obumselus in our midst. And they, too, would know that we wish them planted at the center of our lives, not consigned to the invisible margins, to wither and die, little mourned.
Postscript: Last week proved truly disheartening. Shortly before I learned about Obumselu’s death, I had found out—through WhatsApp, Facebook and phone calls—about the bizarre death of Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba. In the late-1980s, Onukaba and I were colleagues at the Guardian. And then we reconnected in the US when he lived in New York, first as a student, then as an academic—before he returned to Nigeria.
I was particularly upset by the manner of his death. He was returning by road to Abuja after attending former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s birthday. Somewhere on a highway, he and his party came upon an ambush by armed robbers. He was apparently struck by a car and killed instantly when he got out of his car to flee on foot. Another shattering blow, another life cut down at its prime, because we have nurtured our country into hopelessness and chaos.
You can reach Okey at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @okeyndibe.