by Dikeogu Chukwumerije
From my earliest recollections, two paintings have occupied pride of place in my father’s collections – a framed outline of the unmistakable profile of Lenin, and a full length, full color, as tall as a grown man painting of Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. With him, I am certain, my father was in love.
They first met at Our Lady’s High School Onitsha, sometime between 1952 and 1956, when in the company of Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Nkrumah fired my father’s mind with the idea of African revolution and continental unity. Scientific socialism would not come until 1957 in Kuti Hall, when helped along by two friends at the University College Ibadan, Daddy embraced Karl Marx.
These were life-changing meetings for him, as significant as thirty odd years later, when he met Jesus Christ. As an eye witness to the transformations that followed that particular encounter – the night virgil, daily devotions, Christmases spent at fasting ‘banquets’ – I can confirm what everyone who has ever met Uche Chukwumerije says, the man didn’t half do things.
So, till he died, in spite of the collapse of the USSR, and the global triumph of the Washington Consensus, and his grudging acceptance of SOME merit in market-led economic theories, he remained intuitively wary of what he termed ‘bourgeois capitalism’. And I would tease him, “Look at the house you live in, Daddy, and you call yourself a Comrade?” Those were the types of jokes that brought the brightest sparkles to his eyes.
For, you see, it was not a title, at all, for him – ‘Comrade’ – for he had nothing but utter disdain for crass materialism. Once, curious about the impact of the £20 policy on him after the War, I found a moment and asked. It brought on a look of amusement, followed immediately by his rumbling laughter – “Should you not have asked if I even had a bank account in the first place?” What would he need it for? When he lived on a diet of (as I liked to call it) nuts and berries, and the occasional bottle of Stout (a lingering habit from the early days as a desk reporter in Lagos). A wardrobe full of identical plain white clothes, simple shoes, and an unbreakable habit of carrying his own bag – Uche Chukwumerije was a proud and conscientious citizen of Sparta.
Not always amusing. I remember the earth moving arguments we had before he would allow me to take a deck (i.e cassette player) to school, with a small piece of carpet that had already been so used it was without third-hand value. In his mind, these modest furnishings were proof of my developing ‘big headedness’. And in my defense I pointed out that the children of his mates brought cars to school, and lived off campus. He said – “Okay then, but I do not want any of MY children prancing around like peacocks with raised shoulders, puffed up over imaginary achievements. The future belongs to those who are so obsessed with it they forsake the pleasures of today.” You see, it was a trait he had the deepest and most sincere respect for, simplicity, and one of the primary reasons for his undying devotion to Mallam Aminu Kano, second only to Mallam’s dedication to the cause of the talakawa. For that too was something that always troubled my old man, social injustice and what he called the inequitable distribution of wealth. It didn’t start in the Senate, where he conceived bills like the Corporate Social Responsibility Bill and seriously toyed with proposing one to cap rents in Abuja.
I remember our arguments in his office in the Senate, because I stood on the opposite side of the ideological divide, arguing that capping rents and slapping CSR taxes on companies was not the best way to proceed in the 21st century; trying to drag an old socialist a bit more towards the center. And he did make adjustments, as he was always respectful of the well-argued case, but his ideological soul was constantly troubled with that singular concern – how does one make life better for the people?
Not many people can boast of the same consistency, for my father was already an active socialist by 1961, when fresh out of University he plunged into groups like The Nigerian Socialist Movement and Eskor Toyo’s Socialist Workers and Farmers Party. His ideological framework – undergirded by giants like Nkrumah, Nasser, Marx, and Lenin – was, essentially, double-barreled. Politically he was Pan-Africanist. Economically, he was Marxist. Both strands of thought were linked by the prominent place given to the ideal of Unity – the unity of African states and peoples in the first instance, and of the oppressed proletariat in the second. So, believe me when I tell you that in 1966, when hostilities first broke out, my father was a reluctant Biafran. But – like I heard him say once at a family meeting, just after he had damned the collective and decided to shoulder the burden of burying his elder brother alone – “what is ours is ours, and what is mine is mine”.
His engagement in Biafra was, first and foremost, that same visceral decision to stand with his own in their darkest hour, for who should keep the gates but the owners of the house? But the objective facts of the situation also fired his socialist angst – the massacre of innocents, the bombing of civilian targets, the use of starvation as a weapon of war – and in that rugged crucible he began to form his life-long conviction that if we must have One Nigeria, it should not be over the systemic and violent suppression of his, or any other, ethnic or social group. In his mind, Nigeria could only flourish on the socialist foundation of justice to all her component parts, or as Igbo people would say, “Biri ka m biri”.
This conviction supplied the ideological fire for his consistent defense of the Igbo cause. For him, the path to One Nigeria could either be revolutionary or evolutionary. He would have, of course, preferred the former – where the nation was led by a series of high minded, totally de-tribalized leaders who, like Jerry Rawlings of Ghana or Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, would lay socio-political foundations for true integration. If we could not have that, then we would have to settle for a slower, more organic process with the different ethnic groups constantly negotiating and re-negotiating access to the center.
If this process was allowed to continue in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect, and with the constant re-affirmation of the long term goal of de-tribalization and integration, THEN – he would say with the sigh of a man impatient for change – “in the lives of these your children perhaps, or, much more likely, of their unborn children, we will have what we hope for today”. For, I remember, it was one of the first Bills he worked on when first elected to the Senate in 2003 – the Election Campaign Finance Regulation Bill. It was what made Aminu Kano so different from the others, he always said, the fact that Mallam – whether with NEPU or PRP – won hearts, and minds, and electoral seats without splashing millions around. “But today” – my father wrote this in 1999 – “there is hardly an elected executive who spent less than a million Naira to buy his seat. When one’s access to power is so morally flawed, probity is compromised from the very beginning.
Today, the system has completely destroyed every incentive to selfless service and encourages a new ethos of self-service in all breeds, whether new or old. But the system forgets one historical fact. The system that seeks to abort the birth of future Aminu Kanos only hastens the pace of its own destruction.” He believed it. And from where I sat and watched him for many, many years, I know that he lived it. Yes, I will miss him, for he was my ideological fountainhead – my father as well as my Comrade. Ishikaraka, adieu!
Dikeogu Chukwumerije is a writer.