By Ambassador Godknows Igali
In what is obviously one of the greatest moments of cold chills which any human community could have felt, the Niger-Deltans and Nigerians are, this season, reminded of man’s pitiable duel with mortality as they set to lay to final rest, Nigeria’s first Minister of Petroleum Resources, Dr Mofia Akobo, and leading leftist intellectual Professor Kimse Okoko, back-to-back on 10th and 17th October, 2020 respectively.
These two sombre events come against a backdrop of a year of unprecedented losses ran riot by Corona Virus (Covid-19) or varied natural causes, which afflicted both great and small, royalties and simple, political hierarchy and citizens; too numerous to make reasonable counting.
For the Niger Delta, before any could emotionally convalesce from the loss of one of the region’s youngest entrepreneurial big wigs, Keniebi Okoko (son of now late Prof Okoko) a couple of months ago, its own Deputy National Chairman of the omnibous regional Pan Nigeria Niger-Delta Forum (PANDEF), Chief Francis Doukpola fell to the cold hands of death. Closely following, the entire South South, shockingly awoke to the departure of Captain Sam Owonaru, the “only surviving rebel officer” from the first military insurrection in Nigeria led by Major Isaac Boro in February, 1966. Interesting enough, Captain Owonaru and his rebel colleagues of the “Twelve Days Revolution” of that year, ended up fighting to keep “Nigeria One”; an effort that took the lives of all his colleagues save for him. As if these were not enough, of yet more dismay were the catalogue of departures in quick succession of Dr. Ombo Isokariari, Chief Ken Etokochay and Chief Bekinbo Soberekon, three leading politicians and businessmen, and Supreme Court Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte; all four from Rivers State.
While all deaths are equally painful, dreadful and undesired, the exits of Dr. Akobo and Prof. Okoko, both great national figures, more particularly represent a watershed in the retelling of the Niger Delta story.
Importantly, chronicling of the Ijaw nationality story as they worked without equal, in both context and scope, for the unity and outlining of the object of what has become known as “the Ijaw struggle” – an appellation for the aspirations of the people of the group in Nigeria’s complex heterogeneous and socio-economic mesh.
Brief story about the medical doctor, turned soldier – politician
Dr Mofia Tonjo Akobo’s life voyage plays out as one amongst few Nigerians which touches on almost every facet of the country’s public service and national development. He was trained as a medical doctor and a soldier who served in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) and later became the country’s first Minister of Petroleum Resources. This placed him at the vortex of building the post-war economy, sadly still entirely dependent on oil.
As with many prominent Nigerians of Kalabari sub ethnic stock, he was born in the portside town of Abonnema in 1934, where he also had his primary education. From there, by the simple dint of exceptional academic brilliance, he proceeded to the famous Government College, Umuahia, from 1949 to 1955; becoming the School Captain in his final year. This was a time when Government College, Umuahia, was a citadel of sorts for the most outstanding from then Eastern Region and expectedly, they dominated public service and governance including at national level. His entry into the world of medical practice started from his time at the University College Ibadan in 1956-1960 and later University of Lagos Teaching Hospital 1963-1964. These prepared him for work at several places including the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital Igbobi, and Marina General Hospital, both in Lagos.
However, it was more of his practice while in the Nigerian Army that brought him to the forefront. He worked as a military doctor at critical units such as the Federal Airport Medical Unit and the Five Battalion Medical Service, both in Kano, and General Hospitals Yenagoa and Aba during the war years in 1966-1968. Ultimately, he rose to head the Nigerian Army Medical Corps of the 3rd Marine Commando from 1968 to 1970, during the most critical years of the Nigerian Civil War. A thought-provoking aspect of his affectionate instinct and medical practice is that he did not discriminate between combatants of both the Federal and the Biafra’s troops. His main goal at all times was that of saving lives.
With such great service to the country in the direct war front, he was selected for active engagement in the post-military service in governance at the level of his home state in Rivers, and later at the centre. Taking regard of his antecedence as a sportsman of note during his years at Umuahia and as a medical student at Ibadan and Lagos, it was not surprising when his first appointment was to Chair the Rivers State Sports Council and by consequence a member of the National Sports Commission of Nigeria. He was pivotal to such great sports initiatives as the formation of once famous Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt, which for several years was prominent in the National Premier League. After that came his separate appointments as the Rivers State Commissioner for Works and later Finance, from 1972-1974. His performance on these functions again played a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the Military administration of Rivers State, under then youthful Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff, who still maintains a record as having attained that high position at the age of 24 years in 1967. Dr Akobo’s portfolios saw to the construction of much of the idyllic landmarks in Port Harcourt. On this, one writer, puts it thus: “Over four decades after it was built by the administration of Navy Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff (rtd), only the Federal Government Secretariat in the new city of Abuja has a comparable presence. No state government in the entire federation, has been able to equal this indelible imprint of the very first administration of Rivers State created in 1967.
The Rivers State Secretariat Complex is a cluster of five high-rise buildings made up of three 7-storey buildings called Block A, B and C; a 10-storey building called the Podium Block and a 17-storey building called the Point Block, which though built before 1975, remains the tallest building in the whole of South-East and South-South of Nigeria.”
It is interesting how a medical doctor could so easily switch roles as his preferment to the centre was imminent. So, the hawk-eyed then Head of States, Gen. Murtala Mohammed (1938-1976) discovered and moved him to Lagos as the Minister of the newly created Ministry of Petroleum Resources. This was at a time when there was critical debate in Nigeria as to proper management of the new windfall from its oil revenue and ensuring appropriate spread effect in all facets of the third National Development Plan (1975-1980). His entry into the oil industry came at the hiatus of the massive oil boom, which came at the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli conflict coinciding with Nigeria’s post-war 3-Rs – Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reformation Programme.
Of particular note was the fact that under his watch, Nigeria embarked on the construction of the Warri Refinery and another inland Refinery in Kaduna, to handle heavy crude. Added to this is the fact that he also initiated the building of a second refinery in Port Harcourt, to increase the local handling capacity in the country. Besides these very far reaching accomplishments, Dr Akobo will be remembered as the statesman who was able to bring about the metamorphosis of the erstwhile Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) which had become moribund and unable to cope with best industry standards with other member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. He therefore brought about the establishment of a new, more vibrant successor body; Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which nearly 45 years later has continued to serve the country.
He was one of few ministers in the then government of General Murtala who was retained and assigned very critical roles in the new military Government of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. In this case, he was moved to what was considered “super ministry” dealing with the initial Economic Planning and Development. Among some of his main achievements in his new portfolio which lasted till 1977, was his role in strengthening the newly formed Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the implementation of the Lagos Plan of Action.
In his post service years between Nigeria’s restless military regimes of yesteryears, Dr Akobo meandered into the world of national politics like many of his erstwhile colleagues in government. Additionally, he focused on matters pertaining to solidarity within the people of the oil-rich and environmentally pillaged South-South, Nigeria.
Therefore, he was one of the main associates of the Chief Anthony Enahoro (1923-2010), who was one of the founding members of the movement for National Reformation. It is important to mention that his friend, Chief Enahoro in his earlier days as a young member of the Action Group in 1953, moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence, a situation that created great stir within the then delicate North-South balance in the parliament.
He was also a close ally of Major General David Ejoor (1932-2019) and jointly formed the “Southern Minorities Movement.” General Ejoor with whom he became close political friends was Governor of the defunct Mid-West Region and a contemporary of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi (1926-1966) of the Western Region, Col. Hassan Katsina (1933-1995), Governor of the North, and Col.Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (1933-2011) of the East. Later, Ejoor rose to become Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army before his retirement.
More closely home, a person of worth with whom he worked closely on house-keeping issues in bringing together the people of Ijaw Ethnic nationality, was Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye (1920-2005), who was a leading political figure from the precolonial days. He was co-founder of People’s League, in 1941, one of Nigerias first political parties and later found the Niger Delta Congress. In 1957, he led the people of the region to appear before the Willinks Commission set up by the British to investigate fears of Nigerian minority groups in the prelude to the country’s independence. So, along with other leaders of the Ijaw ethnic nationality, he formed the flagship of the organization of his people, the Ijaw National Council (INC) and Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) in 1991. More than that, he remained one of the rallying points for later Ijaw political advancement, cultural renaissance and the quest for issues of resource control and environmental protection.
In other political engagements at the national level, he was often associated with multiple pro-democracy groups and was a founding member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and the famous Centre for Constitutional Governance led by Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti (1940-2006). As the sunset for military rule in Nigeria took pace, he was one of the founding fathers of the G-34 Political Movement which transformed into what is today the country’s leading opposition party; the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Back in his home base, Rivers State, along with such thinkers as world leading political economist, Prof. Claude Ake and former Science and Technology Minister, Prof. Turner Isoun, he was one of the pioneers that formed the Rivers State Study Group which has continued to endure as a high-level stakeholders forum to discuss issues pertaining to the socio-economic development, environment and inter-ethnic harmony in region.
The Marxian intellectual and community activist
Prof Kimse Amaebi Biye Okoko was one of Nigeria’s outstanding Marxist-Leninist scholars of the 1970s-2000s who, for most of his life, kept faith with his persuasions against what could be termed the continued “oppressive tendencies” unleashed on society by a bourgeois elite.
Born on 28th July, 1940, in the riverside town of Obunaghan, on the shores of Taylor Creek which had been much fantasized in the poetry of Gabriel Okara, he was not always a fiery leftist political scientist. Like his elder friend, Dr Akobo, he also started his working life in the medical field. After attending the famous Okrika Grammar School for his secondary education, he went to Yaba School of Medical Laboratory Technology, between 1960-1962 and thereafter a degree in Microbiology at the Hendon School of Technology, London, 1962-1965. This was before he proceeded to Vancouver, Canada where he obtained his Bachelor’s degree, bagging first class honours in Political Science at the University of British Colombia, and thereafter a Master’s degree also in Political Science in 1972 and 1973 respectively. His Doctorate degree in Political Science which focused on “Socialism and Self-Reliance using Tanzania” and its “Ujamaa” philosophy was from the Carlton University Ottawa, Canada obtained in 1978. In tune with his leftist bend, all his studies including first degree and masters also focused on the “Concept of African Socialism” and a “Comparative Study in Political and Economic Consolidation Policies by the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan”, and Communist China in Siakiang China.
In his working life, along the line of his academic tilt, his first jobs were in the medical field. So he worked as a Pathologist and Medical Technologist at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Lagos, the Veterinary Research Institute Vom, Jos, and finally as a Medical Technologist at Prince George Regional Hospital British Colombia, when he arrived in Canada. It may be true to say that it was his deep scientific background that later made him to become the very successful political scientist.
Prof Okoko’s academic sojourn in Canada was greatly influenced by the intellectual titan and Africa’s foremost political philosopher, Professor Claude Ake (1939-1996). Ake who had moved from teaching political economy at American Ivy League institutions – Columbia and Yale Universities – to University of British Columbia in Canada, therefore mentored him into Leninist thoughts and line of scholarship. By the time Prof Ake returned to Nigeria to take up Deanship of the School of Social Sciences at the newly created University of Port Harcourt, he turned it into a kind of global confluence of excellence in scholarship and learning. He attracted the very best from around the world as full time lecturers or as visiting scholars. These included top Sweden social democratic exponator, Professor Bjorn Beckman, Togolese top thinker, SLS Kodjo, Ghanaian scholar, Eboe Hutch as well as Wadada Nabudere and Okelo Oculli, both from Uganda and fellow East Africans academic giants Ali Mazuri and “Dependency Theorist’ Samir Amin. The osmotic pull to the UNIPORT Political Science school were also big Nigerian intellectual names as Ikenna Nzimiro, Julius Ihonvbere, Okwudiba Nnoli, Omo Omoruyi, Olagunju, Sam Oyovbaire, Adele Junaidu and ILO’s top economist Vremudia Djemama. In all these, Prof. Okoko, who became Ake’s alter ego was, as it were, a mentee of quite a few and he learnt, voraciously and was able to cut out a niche for himself as the years progressed. He subsequently earned for himself a place as a top political scientist, enjoying great admiration within academic circles.
Along the line therefore, he became one of the most prolific exponents for the protection of the environment of the Niger Delta and the appreciation of questions of identity of various indigenous ethnic groups in the Niger Delta; in particular, the Ijaw Group. He rode prolifically on these questions especially on matters as social economic impact on the oil industry in the Niger Delta, question of Federalism, politics of oil, and the national question in Nigeria. Okoko poured his intellectual prowess into crisis of under-development in the Niger Delta which he traced to such issues as “dynamics of internal colonialism in Nigeria” and the absence of true Federalism.
Eventually, he became one of the main intellectual masterminds for the formation of the Ijaw National Congress(INC), the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and other bodies that still pursue the integration and economic development of the South-South region. By the year 2000, he was elected President of the INC, and is still rated as the most accomplished so far. He fought for Ijaw people and the region fearlessly, including against it’s in-house retrogressive forces. In 2005, he led the Bayelsa Delegation to the National Policy Conference that was convened by President Olusegun Obasanjo. These were areas in which his life’s work coincided with Dr Akobo and they worked exceptionally in tandem. The only difference between both men was in the fact that what Prof Okoko pursued was essentially intellectual radicalism. He was averse to joining any of the “elitist” political parties and was never a card-carrying member of any of the country’s political groups.
In the rest of his life, Okoko stands out as one of the most published scholars in Nigeria and at various times, served as a top member of the Nigerian Political Science Association, African Political Science Association and other groups relating to the studies on Eastern Europe. He also served as Member of Council in various universities such as his own University of Port Harcourt, and then College of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt (now Rivers State University), Federal Polytechnic Mubi, Niger Delta University (NDU) and also Pro-Chancellor University of Uyo, as well as Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors of Federal Universities.
Although he was known to have combated the military at various times over its hold on to power, he had at a point served as Commissioner for Land and Housing in Rivers State; a detour which some of his radical soulmates questioned. Later, he was Chairman of the Lower Niger River Basin Development Authority, Ilorin.
Few last words
Like Akobo and Okoko, the lives of the many lost this year, 2020, were full of high-points of great national service, especially contribution to the peace and unity of the country and its economic progress. But much more than many others, these two men were patriots of special genre in the commitment to the political emancipation and economic development of the Niger-Delta. They toiled for the environment of the area and fought for the actualization of the social rights and integration of the region.
Nations and communities they say, are not built by angels but by selfless citizens committed to the common good. Both Dr. Akobo and Prof. Okoko were men who saw the need to place themselves at the very fulcrum of national service, particularly in building men and women, in developing the social infrastructure and harmony of society both at the ethnic, regional and national levels. For example, when they combined with others to form the Ijaw National Council, it was more than an expression of ethnic jingoistic sentiments. No! It was to help in creating internal cohesion within Nigeria’s fourth largest group spread indigenously in six states, i.e. Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, Ondo, Akwa Ibom and Edo; at a time when inter-ethnic rivalry orchestrated by straddling oil endowments were rife and needed to be doused. Even of more importance was their intellectual mentorship and reformation of the more active Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), which in the early 1990’s and in the 2000s, arose to take a militant direction including violent disruptions of the oil industry. On both occasions, Nigeria’s oil production which was already peaking at about 2m barrels per day, slumped to as low as 700,000 barrels per day (BPD). This was brought to normalcy by the roles played by the INC and IYC and the leadership provided by these two patriots and others.
For their lifetime service, they were honoured severally, in their professions and received the very high national accolades as Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic (CON) for Dr. Akobo and Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR), in the case of Prof. Okoko.
However, their engagement on both issues of state building in Nigeria and fight for the realization of the interest of the Niger-Delta are inchoate and work still in progress. So, their deaths have also raised a critical question of where the people of this part of Nigeria will continue to derive the expected moral, psychological, and intellectual boost, for which they were both bellwethers. Of greater pertinence is how such greatly inspiring lives would present signposts for the budding generation of Nigerians and Niger Deltans at a time when the call for re-dedicated national service is on the highest echo. It was contemporary American politician, Hilary Clinton, who recently said that to be the kind of society which we want, more citizens must get involved in community and national service at various levels. These two great nation-builders like some before them, have gone the way of men leaving behind very big shoes for future generations to fit in to. But if any lessons are learnt, it is for renewed commitment from all towards the building of this nation in line with the words of our national anthem, a society where peace and justice shall reign, especially for the people of the Niger Delta who still feel greatly aggrieved on many fronts.
Dr. Igali, is a former Federal Permanent Secretary and Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria