The coming of 2021 has not abated the tragedies of sickness and death associated with 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic. For my friend Ebere, the announcement from his son, Memme, came as a huge shock: “With deep sadness and submission to the will of God, we announce the sudden death of Chief Prof. Ebere Onwudiwe, Mba 1 of Isunjaba, due to the complications of the global pandemic, on January 9, 2021.” I did not know he was sick and we had last spoken just after Christmas, which he spent in the village. I continue to feel that this wicket Covid-19 is really after us as I lose one friend after another. The second round of the pandemic has been particularly deadly losing good friends such as Sam Nda-Isaiah, Professors Habu Galadima and Femi Odekunle and my NYSC buddy Comrade A. A. Abdulsalam, the Chairman of the Labour Party in quick succession. The disease seems to target professors in particular because so many have fallen to the virus in the past few weeks. I say it seems to because of the media focus on the loss of professors but the truth might well be that it is indiscriminate and targeting everybody but as is usual, it is the more well known that get spoken about. As was the case during the 1918-1919 pandemic, the disease exhausts humans through panic-induced crippling lockdowns and restrictions, waits for them to get fed up and force governments to lift restrictions and then strikes more devastating blows during a second wave. Ebere and I often discussed the question – how long can we endure the lockdown and Covid-19 protocols?
I first met Ebere at an African Studies Association meeting in San Francisco in the 1990s and I immediately found him fascinating because of his great commitment to an improved Nigeria and indeed Africa. He defined himself as an Afro-optimist and stood miles apart from the run of the mill diaspora African who was so happy to have escaped the continent and has the permanent position that only crisis and decline could be associated with Africa’s future. He was to later publish his signature work – Afro-Optimism: Perspectives on Africa’s Advances, which he co-edited with Minabere Ibelema. For him, the role of the African intellectual in the diaspora was two-fold – to defend the homeland from unfounded attacks and denigration by racist White academics and secondly, which was even more important for him, to combat bad governance in Africa and get engaged in democratic struggles within the continent to create conditions for the advancement of our countries.
The death of Prof Onwudiwe is painful not just because he was a committed intellectual but also a perfect gentleman, good friend who nurtured his friendships, a committed nationalist and fine scholar that so many of us will miss dearly. He gave up a high-flying academic career in the United States to contribute his quota to the development of his country. He planned it well. He secured a high paying appointment as a governance consultant with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to participate in researching and writing the 2007 African Governance Report. The opportunity provided him the necessary income to return to Nigeria and serve his country without the immediate need to search for jobs that might force him to keep his mouth shut. It was in that context that he developed a new role as an activist and public intellectual within the Nigerian public sphere.
His first major engagement on his return was an important project for the office of the Chief of Defence Staff on the promotion of improved civil-military relations on the basis of military subjugation to democratic civilian authority. I was privileged to be part of the directing staff of academics, professionals and retired generals that he constituted to travel all over the country to give lectures and debate democratic ethos in military formations. It was a rewarding and revealing experience that showed that the military had indeed moved away from its earlier culture of coup-making and power brokers and was ready to play its modern role as a support base for an enduring democratic system. The book that emanated from the project which he coordinated with Professor Osaghae of the University of Ibadan remains a classic on the subject.
Ebere Onwudiwe was popular columnist for many Nigerian newspapers starting with Newswatch and Business Day and later migrating to Premium Times. He was a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, and has served as a member of the Governing Council of Igbinedion University, Okada, Edo State and a member of the Board of Ojukwu Center, Owerri, Imo State. He also recently served on the Board of Economic Advisers to the Office of the Adviser on Economic Matters to the President of Nigeria.
Professor Onwudiwe received a M.Sc. (Econs), M.A. (Int’l Relations) and Ph.D in (Pol Sci.) from Florida State University, Tallahassee. For much of his career, he taught political science and economics at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio where he was at different times director of the National Resource Centre for African Studies, and the Executive Director of the Centre for International Studies. He has also been a visiting professor at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio; Antioch College, Yellow Springs and the United Nations University of Peace, Costa Rica.
For Onwudiwe, Nigeria as a Federal country needs citizens who are engaged simultaneous as nationalists at the federal level but who have roots in their community of origin. He was proud of his Igbo heritage and was active in the socio-cultural organisation of Ohaneze Ndigbo. In one of his recent columns, he engaged in the current debate about an Igbo presidency arguing:
“2023 is a pivot year for millions of Ndigbo desiring acceptance by the rest of Nigerians for belonging in the Nigerian state. One of the clear telltale signs that will indicate this national acceptance is the achievement of the presidency of Nigeria in 2023 by an Igbo person. To accomplish this, Ndigbo need not only whip up the believers, advocates, and supporters of their cause, they also have to woo the agnostics, detractors, and adversaries across the land.
This requires building a strong and expansive nationwide coalition across the country to shake off the excessively individualistic pursuit of that highest office in the country. The place to start is at home, specifically, with consolidating the support of the Igbo nation all over the country and building a fresh strong bridge between constituents and their immediate neighbours in the South-South. Charity, they say, begins at home.”
My sincere condolences to his family and numerous friends all over the world.