Since that accursed day of 12 May 2012, when Olaitan Oyerinde, former student activist, trade unionist and principal private secretary to Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State, was murdered in his living room, death has been a deliriously happy visitor in the camp of Nigeria’s radical humanists. So much so that hardly are the bereaved done wiping away tears of the last funeral than news of another untimely death arrives to set them wailing afresh. The list is long: Oyerinde, Festus Iyayi, Baba Omojola, Bamidele Aturu, Oronto Natei Douglas. Did I mention Chima Ubani who died in yet another fuel subsidy “battle” in 2005; Chris Abashi, former NANS president felled by death a year earlier; and Jonas Awodi, who served as NANS General Secretary with Emman Ezeazu and who also departed too soon? And now Emma Ezeazu.
Ezeazu, I can say, was a sort of beacon in my career as an activist. By 1987 when I became Secretary-General of the Students Union at the University of Benin and member of the senate of the National Association of Nigerian Students, Ezeazu had emerged as the first (and, I believe, only) postgraduate president of NANS. More important, he was a leading cadre of the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria, the platform for radical left groups on campuses which gave ideological direction to the student movement. Without PYMN, the glorious epoch of NANS wouldn’t have been as its leadership might have been just as loathsome as the successive array of pathetic mendicants since the end of the 90s. Under Ezeazu, and Lanre Arogundade and Bubajoda before him, the spirit of defiance inherited from Segun Okeowo’s National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) and the 1978 Ali-Must-Go free education “jihad” blossomed, culminating in the nationwide protests of the murder of four students at Ahmadu Bello University, and, three years later, the Great Anti-SAP Protest of 1989 when Salihu Lukman was president.
And there was Ezeazu again when, national youth service over, I returned in 1992 to Lagos from Makurdi and was immediately confronted by the question of which of my conflicting passions to give priority: legal practice, return to the university to cultivate the budding writer in me, or enlist in the emerging human rights front of the struggle to free Nigeria of the plague of military dictatorship that announced its intent by sending a parcel bomb to kill an unarmed citizen? Ezeazu, then National Secretary of the Civil Liberties Organisation, had led a contingent of former student activists to its headquarters in Lagos, among them Ubani, Lanre Ehonwa, Chukwumah Innocent and Emmanuel Edigheji. He would leave that same year to found a grassroots-oriented NGO, the Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP), and later, the Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE), both of which testify to his life-long commitment to the entrenchment of democracy in a land where the seed of progressive self-governance has yet to find the good ground in which to grow.
I saw Ezeazu last, I regret to say, in July 2013, when I was home from my perch at Texas State University and sounding out comrades, friends, and acquaintances on the thought of running to be a people’s representative. His eyes had lit up as he broke into his trade mark low staccato laugh on hearing what I was intending, his mirth doubled by the fact that he had himself already decided to make a bid for the House of Representatives, running from Abuja where he now lived and worked, and not Onitsha his hometown. Ever since the radical left’s monumental blunder of 1999 when, unable to consolidate by way of a sovereign national conference the gains of the June 12 struggle, it had thumped its nose at General Abdulsalami’s transition programme, thereby abandoning the terrain to political pirates, opportunists, military apologists, election annullers, advocates of four-more-years-for-Abacha, etc., there had been remorse galore. Coincidentally, Ezeazu and I had both chosen the same party, the All Progressives Congress, for our insurgent bids. “Imagine the two of us on the floor of the House during debates!” he had rhapsodised, not entertaining for the moment the dream-killing cynicism of our do-or-die, end-justifies-the-means, stomach-infrastructure politics. From his sick-bed, he would lose the party’s ticket by a mere four votes. And I would lose to a total unknown arrested two days before by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission but released, remarkably, in the afternoon of the primary to ride triumphantly into and out of the venue. Only for him to disappear the day after and not be seen again in the constituency, thus compelling the party to summon me back from the US in an abortive effort to substitute me for the ballot!
But not even Ezeazu’s infectious enthusiasm could hide the decline in his health. He had, as it turned out, merely been enjoying a brief reprieve from the serious renal condition and related complications that had afflicted him for about four years. On 18 May 2015, Ezeazu joined Ubani, his University of Nigeria schoolmate and Lagos roommate for several years, in the great beyond. A happy reunion they are having over there but from us on the shore of the living a heart-breaking goodbye. I don’t know what will propitiate death to roll its mat and depart the doorsteps of Nigeria’s fast diminishing radical progressives. If I could be assured of the result, I would gladly offer seven fatted calves as burnt offering, undergo a seven-day dry fasting-and-prayer, or forego sex for seven years. Alas, death is implacable, so I am reduced to a simple cry: onwubiko! Death, we implore you: spare Nigeria’s patriots. Go, instead, after those who loot, rape and destroy the country!