by Tony Amadi
The death last Sunday of Senator Uche Chukwumerije sent shockwaves across the national political establishment, particularly the National Assembly where he worked as a Senator of the Federal Republic and across global chancelleries.
Someone described the death as a big loss to Nigeria and for the Igbo nation, a tragedy. Ohaneze Ndi Igbo will find it very difficult to replace the Dike Ogu of Igboland.
Nationally, his net worth is immense. He was the last of the titans among the prominent heroes of the Biafran war as the one who masterminded the ingenuous Biafran propaganda machine as Director of Information during the war and later was to re-engineer the Federal Ministry of Information as Secretary for Information in the government of Military President Ibrahim Babangida and the Ernest Shonekan’s short-lived interim government.
I will never forget the last few months to his death when he sent for me at his Turkish Hospital bed in Abuja and told me he had lung cancer.
He fought the dreaded disease with every power he could muster, particularly with the power of prayer. As a prayer warrior himself, he gave the fight his all and got discharged at a point, only to return for the final bout last Sunday 19th April, 2015.
In those final days, he remained stoic, putting the final briefing to various writers as he became fully enmeshed in the writing of several books dear to his heart, but which he could not find time to conclude with his workload as Chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee.
He was anxious to put out a compilation of his writings in the Daily and Sunday Times of Nigeria in the early sixties after his graduation from the University of Ibadan.
An Akure based publisher had researched and packaged the book for publication but the senator was more anxious to publish three books in one batch and had made several arrangements for support with a core group of writers he had collaborated with over the years whether at the Directorate of Propaganda during his Biafran years or as Minister of Information in Lagos where he assembled a large number of writers who worked with him.
Where do you start writing a tribute to a great man of his people, a parliamentarian of top quality and an information and communication expert with an unrivalled pedigree and political insight that was rare in this clime? Our last meeting was barely ten days to his death.
A scheduled meeting held at his bedroom with his son Chaka, a legal consultant going over important matters; despite the pains he was going through he was still methodical, sharply focused and giving instructions on things to be done and taken care of.
Chaka was equal to the task of noting down instructions and the ability to respond with appropriate answers. I cannot say that he had premonition that the end was near, but having worked with him for several years during the war, at Federal Ministry of Information and in the Senate there was no room for any postponement for what could have been done now to be done later.
The art of workaholism was in his system. If you have no faith in work and you don’t enjoy working all the time, don’t come near Comrade Uche Chukwumerije. He actually preferred being called comrade than senator.
Only his inner circle of friends knows this. Senator to him sounded bourgeois and capitalistic and he despised any connotation of capitalism even if it was sometimes a necessary evil to be capitalist in order to achieve certain changes in society.
Perhaps this was why he was attracted to the then Military Governor of Eastern Region, Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, upon his return from Lagos where he worked at Broadcasting House, Ikoyi, fresh from the University of Ibadan and a rookie in the editorial department of the Daily Times.
His incisive writings in the media, particularly Radio Nigeria in the early sixties was a must read for the young governor and Uche soon became a member of Ojukwu’s inner circle and the reason he soon found him indispensable and appointed him the Director of Information at the age of 25 and masterminded the greatest war propaganda machine ever seen in the continent.
He set up the influential Afriscope magazine after the war and interviewed virtually every African leader of the time including Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea’s Sekou Toure, Augustino Neto of Angola, Amir Cabral of Guinea Bissau and the young Frelimo chieftain Chisano and others. It was Uche Chukwumerije’s exploits in Afriscope that provided the background material that led the government of Murtala Mohammed to recognize Angola’s quest for freedom and moved its might to support that administration in Luanda in the 1970s.
Such was the strength of Afriscope in its time that the Nigerian government relied on its analysis of African issues, and Uche was later to become involved in government when under the military government of General Babangida, he was appointed the Secretary for Information.
Despite the huge challenge of the time, he was able to discharge his duties honourably with integrity and left footprints on the sands of time.
The news management of the 1993 elections and all the major decisions of the government under his watch was professionally handled. Chukwumerije’s The World in Retrospect which I believe the family will publish in due course is an amalgam of his early writings in the Daily and Sunday Times, Spear and Happy Home magazines and his own Afriscope magazine over a period of time. Several writers are also working on aspects of his Memoirs and important aspects of the Management of Information in Biafra and many others.
At his death bed, Chukwumerije continued to work on his memoirs, briefing those that has corroborated with him over the years. It was to him, business as usual, never mind that cancer had wreaked so much havoc in the process.
So I was driving out on Sunday 19th April 2015, around 6.30pm when the phone rang. Guardian reporter, Azimazi was on the line and wanted to know if I could confirm the death of Uche Chukwumerije. Oh my God, I thought. So this is it.
Chaka confirmed the story when I called to find out. “Yes, my dad is gone; he died at 4.30pm”, just two hours ago. In less than thirty minutes, the radio networks were agog with the story of his death with statements issued by the Senate and the Senators family.
Tributes have been pouring in from everywhere and the Chairman of the National Assembly and President of the Senate, Senator David Mark, visited the family after making sure the Senate honoured their deceased colleague by stopping plenary for the day.
He later wrote in the condolence register: “A friend and brother, a great Nigerian and a patriotic Nigerian. The nation will miss my brother Senator Uche; Rest in peace with the Lord”.
The family has announced the burial of the senator for May 22, 2015 and the Senate is gearing up for a befitting burial for one of their greatest senators in recent memory.
It will be a day that the people of Ngodo, his home town in Umunneochi Local Government Area of Abia State will know that their son touched lives across the country if not the world.
Senator Chukwumerije came to the Senate in 2003 and chaired the Senate Committee on Inter Parliamentary Affairs, between 2003-2007; then Vice Chairman, Committee on Power between 2007-2011 and took over the Education portfolio from 2011 till his death on Sunday 19th April, 2015.
Under his leadership of the committee, the country made tremendous progress in the sector and he was the senate mastermind that ensured the delivery of the Almajiri schools in the North and the establishment of 13 new universities which the government of President Jonathan would rightly claim as some of its key successes over its reign.
His politics has essentially been anchored left of the centre, following the footprints of his political mentor Malam Aminu Kano of the Peoples Redemption Party, PRP, the party he functioned well as the National Publicity Secretary in the 70s and 80s.
He later joined the PDP through whom he won the senate seat in 2003, but President Obasanjo ensured he did not get the party’s endorsement for 2007, so Chukwumerije joined the Peoples Progressive Party, PPA, and despite being a relatively new party, won the Senate seat in Abia North.
President Obasanjo had singled him out for his role in ensuring that his third term bid was shot down, essentially by the Chukwumerije led anti Third Term group, The 2007 Movement.
It was Chukwumerije’s verbal tirade against third term that alerted senators to the looming dangers of the imminent third term plot when he told the media on behalf of the 2007 Movement which he led that “it would be foolhardy to continue to believe the evasive official denials of a third term plan because the body language of the presidency is very loud and clear.
Like the flood of an approaching hurricane, the third term plot is gradually but steadily creeping inwards, softening the ground and weakening the resolve of all critical joints of our constitutional democracy.
What the [President’s] spin doctors seek to do is to mesmerize us into a state of stupor and false safety, draw rings of siege around the town, and present us with a surrender statement in the eleventh hour when resistance is too late”.
From then on, the third term plot was doomed. The bid to stop the senator was equally doomed to the delight of Nigerian democracy and he went on to win another third session in the senate from 2011 to 2015.
But for this lung cancer that brought him down, Senator Chukwumerije would have continued to represent the people of Abia North and Nigerians would have been glad for it. Uche was blessed with 8 children, the Germany based Che, Azuka, the only daughter, Kwame (who died years ago) Dike, Chaka, Uche Jnr, and the twins Kele and the Taekwando champion Chika. His lovely wife, Gloria Iweka stood by him to the end.
I have no doubt that God Almighty will receive Uche Chukwumerije’s soul in heaven as most people are praying for. His religiousity is not in doubt for he was a prayer warrior, evangelistic in nature and the Methodist Church in Ngodo and the Mountain of Fire adherents know that he was always in God.
May his gentle soul rest in perfect peace, Amen!
Tony Amadi is a writer and was a close friend of Late Senator Uche Chukwumerije.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.