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A parable of four men

November 23, 2009

Image removed.Last week, four Nigerian men made the headlines for different reasons. The four men, and their various stories and fates, served to underscore the state of the Nigerian nation. There was the death in London of Samuel Ejikeme Okoye, a renaissance man and extraordinary scientist whose credentials, broad research interests and excellent record as a professor on three continents justly earned him a description as one of Africa’s top scientists.

Professor Okoye died in London on Wednesday, November 18 – after many years of battling renal disease.

Born on July 26, 1939, Okoye earned a B.Sc (First Class) in Physics in 1962 from the University of Ibadan, then an affiliate of the University of London. He then won a worldwide competition for a Carnegie Foundation fellowship that enabled him to undertake doctoral studies in Astrophysics at Cambridge University, England. He became the first black African to obtain a PhD in the field of Radio Astronomy.

I learned of Okoye’s death on Thursday, November 19, a day after his transition. The sad news colored the rest of my week. Even so, my deep sorrow at the passage of this remarkable man was also mixed with a sense of buoyant pride in having known him personally.

Over the last ten years that I have written a column for one Nigerian newspaper or another, Okoye was one of my most dependable encouragers. He would often call me after reading one of my essays to offer commendation, as well as the occasional criticism, in that soft, but morally powerful, voice of his. Other times, he’d send an email to urge me to pursue my forthright denunciation of depraved behavior by men and women who misname themselves leaders.

Part of my great pride in the late scholar arose from stories I had heard – years before ever meeting him – about his rare intellectual gifts and accomplishments. Born in Amawbia, my hometown, Okoye became my most intimate portrait of an intellectual legend. I recall occasions when my parents, or some uncle or other elder, would refer to Okoye as “a first class brain.” In my child’s imagination, I always wondered what the inside of such a brain might look like.

Years later, talking regularly with Okoye, I came to grasp his special qualities. I realized that those who spoke grandly of him were not mistaken in the least. In numerous conversations with him, I was struck by his soft-spoken mien. He projected the quiet confidence of a man of intellectual depth and sound moral convictions. His brand of self-possessed restraint is absent in our empty men and women easily drawn to vulgar self-dramatization and ignoble obsession with materialism.

During a visit to London in August, I made a point of visiting Okoye at home. Here was a man who was a giant in his field, a man who had excelled as a professor in Nigeria, the U.S., and the Netherlands, but he was the portrait of contentment in a modest flat, a home shorn of frippery or gaudy décor. His long battle with kidney disease had left a toll on his physique, but his mind remained agile and encyclopedic. For two hours or so, we sipped tea and discussed Nigeria and other issues. Whilst science was his primary constituency, he exuded a deep passion for life and an undying hope that Nigeria would – sooner, he prayed, than later – arise from its moribund state and realize its true promise.

He was convinced that a proper grounding in science is indispensable to the task of national recuperation. This conviction led him, five years ago, to approach the editors of The Guardian with a proposal to write a science column for the paper. On numerous visits to Nigeria, I heard from readers and journalists who benefited immensely from Okoye’s science journalism.

There were, I think, two reasons for the huge number of readers who followed his science essays. First, he had this rare ability to choose science issues that were bound to excite broad interest and curiosity. Second, for readers who, like me, dread the arcane and abstract jargon of science, Okoye proved the perfect guide. Years ago, Professor Chinua Achebe reminded some lecturers at the University of Lagos that the best experts in any field are not necessarily those versed in professional jargon. For Achebe, the true greats are those whose mastery of their subjects enables them to convey complex ideas in accessible language. Achebe cited the example of Bertrand Russell – philosopher, mathematician and elegant essayist – to buttress his point. Professor Okoye had something of that genius, a flair for transmitting baffling scientific ideas in a language digestible by many lay readers. A distinguished scientist, he also wrote crystalline prose.

Here’s one anecdote that serves as a gauge of Okoye’s stature. As a graduate student at Cambridge doing research work in radio astronomy, he played a key role in research work that earned his supervisor, Dr. Tony Hewish, the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Professor Hewish acknowledged Okoye’s collaboration in the research that led to the discovery of the neutron star. Said Hewish: “The first really unusual source to be uncovered by this method turned up in 1965 when, with my student Okoye, I was studying radio emission from the Crab Nebula. We found a prominent scintillating component within the nebula which was far too small to be explained by conventional synchrotron radiation, and we suggested that this might be the remains of the original star which had exploded and which still showed activity in the form of flare-type radio emission. This source later turned out to be none other than the famous Crab Nebula pulsar.”

Before one goes – painfully – from Okoye to a mention of the other three men, I must apologize in advance for mentioning a truly great man in the same breath as three knaves, villains and mediocrities.

Last week, a Swiss court found Abba Abacha, youngest son of the late dictator, Sani Abacha, guilty of laundering $350 million. The court stripped the thief of this cash, stolen from Nigeria in the days his puny father held the nation hostage. The late Abacha, and now his son, illustrate deep moral sickness. It is sad to encounter two men, father and son, whose lives were ruled by greed on a deranged scale. Today, the name Abacha has become a despised franchise for corruption and misrule.

Then there were stories that one university, in Anambra State, was conferring an honorary doctorate on Mr. Andy Uba, and another, in Edo State, had invited former Governor James Ibori to give a “Founders Day” lecture on Monday, November 23. The question is: what kind of blight has seized the administrators and trustees of both universities?

A university is supposed to be a place for learning, inquiry, and the formation of men and women of sound moral insight. Seen in this light, the two universities – Nnamdi Azikiwe and the University of Benin – have betrayed their mission and besmirched their reputation. They belittled themselves by opting to hop into bed with morally emaciated men.

Uba, an aide to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, is understandably desperate for an honorary doctorate. Even though he doesn’t have an earned bachelor’s degree, he long passed himself off as a PhD holder. A man who must answer, sooner or later, for the legendary wealth he accumulated during the Obasanjo years, Uba can’t wait to suit up in the borrowed (and ill-fitting) toga of “doctor.” Did the university find Uba worthy of an honorary degree because the man did such an excellent job of lying about his credentials? Is it because Uba (reportedly) donated a building to the university? Why were the administrators blind to the fact that Uba can hardly explain the source of his wealth? At any rate, no university worth its mettle would exchange an honorary degree for a gift. It’s simply deplorable.

How about Ibori, a man twice convicted in London in the early 1990s, before he found his way back to Nigeria to soil the office of governor in Delta. As I write, he’s facing prosecution for allegedly pilfering billions of naira during his eight-year run as governor (even though there were speculations that his friends acquittal had been arranged).

Professor Okoye knew who he was, and his numerous students and admirers will long treasure his legacy and the values he stood for. Unlike the Abachas, Professor Okoye could account for what he owned. Unlike Uba – who can’t tell anybody how he struck it rich, or where he went to school, or the names of some of his professors and fellow students – Professor Okoye’s academic record is open to public verification. Unlike Ibori, Professor Okoye could boast that he never trembled when a London Metropolitan police officer walked past.

It’s a symptom of our national collapse that university administrators would hold up Uba and Ibori as role models. Those who bestow laurels on unworthy men should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Thank God for the likes of Professor Okoye who prove that greatness, especially true moral greatness, is its own reward.



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