Ikejiani: Remembering his tribute to Zik
News of the passing of one of the titans of modern Nigeria, Okechukwu Ikejiani, MD brought back memories of our first meeting over 12 years ago. That had been at the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania , as preparation for the return of the Great Zik, then almost 90 years old, to his alma mater, got under way. The late Vice Chancellor Prof. Chimere Ikoku called me from Enugu to know if I knew who Ikejiani was and whether I could reach him to start getting ready because for sure, Zik was coming, and after the US, he would be visiting with him in Nova Scotia.
That had been late in February or so. The Owelle, frankly, was far more concerned with seeing his two youngest sons graduate from Lincoln But word got out and the rest, as they say, was destined to become but history. As he had known all his life since his thirties, he was always one to attract more than a passing attention. Once Dr. Niara Sudarkasa, the president, secured commitment that the old legend was willing to travel, she could not believe the signals that went all over the world, commencing a series of activities that would occupy the small but historic campus for three long years. I know, because on recommendation as a past Nsukka alumnus and current university teacher with media and literary interests, I could be of help.
Indeed it was quite something to see the stirrings coming in from all quarters â€" the American government, Black American sororities who hadnâ€™t seen â€˜brother Zeekâ€™ in ages, the Abacha government that was seeking its own legitimacy in the wake of its draconian hangman policies (having executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, chased 1993 election winner Moshood K.O. Abiola into exile, imprisoned Olusegun Obasanjo, clamped down on Shehu Yarâ€™Adua and set up a murderous task force under one Major Mustafa);. There were the jostling Nigerian groups of all persuasions; the US media getting wind that one of the last of the great pan-Africanists was still alive and headed across the Atlantic , began making frantic inquiries. From the academic world came strong interests from US, British and Canadian scholars usually grouped around the African Studies Association. Same with Nigerian academics all over North America .
Trust Nigerian politicians and heavyweights anyone who could find a way to glimpse what was afoot, made an effort to what was really a small private visit with a reception being planned. Vice President Alex Ekwueme, Vice Chancellor Chimere Ikoku, Chief Sunny Odogwu, Princess Alakijia, Ambassador M. Kazaure, Chief Opral Shobowale Benson, Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari, Ambassador George Obiozor, by the scores they arrived. Even Chief MKO Abiola, then in exile from Abacha’s clutches, showed up unannounced and I was dispatched to interrogate his intentions along with Zik’s private secretary Okolo. Leading scholars like Ali Mazrui, Chinua Achebe, Michael Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, leading American academics such as Harvard’s Martin Kilson, Richard Sklar of UCLA and many others
Crowds galore, the conference of reminiscences that I co-chaired (more like emceed really) with Sudarkasa, was a raucous one with the hall being rent with chants of Zeek! Zeeek!
In all that convivial atmosphere of reunion, pan-Africanist reminiscences and the high-politics of US-Nigeria relations then at their lowest ebbs, one man stood out above everyone else as the Owelle’s personal associate, friend and boon companion the dapper elderly gentleman in thick glasses, a nice suit with a cut that bespoke 1950s elegance, and a quiet sense of confidence that this was a historic enough of an occasion to warrant a break from his solitude. They pointed out the legendary Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani to me, one of those stand-outs from the 1959s and 1960s whose name I believe I first heard from Ikenna Nzimiro as we once browsed the books in his extensive library of which he had been so proud. It was only later that I came to know that the future minister, Prof. Miriam Ikejiani-Clark (Miriam Okadigbo in those days and wife of the flamboyant former adviser to President Shagari, Dr. Chuba Okadigbo), was his daughter.
Zik would be back again the next year to see his last boy get his laurels before heading to law school, at a quieter gathering, but Ikejiani would also come along with his friend, as would Ekpechi. That was in 1995. Zik died in 1996. In 1997, Lincoln would again host the world to a final assessment of the author of ˜Renascent African, the man whom everyone from J.S. Tarka would call the single most important man in Nigerian history and T.O.S. Benson would in his recent biography, recall as the tallest tree in the Nigerian political jungle. And that would witness an even bigger parade of dignitaries from far and wide Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Shehu Shagari of Nigeria, former Petroleum minister Shettima Ali Munguno, Prof. Adebayo Adedeji, the Oni of Ife, Benson himself, the Emir of Kano Ado Bayero, ambassadors from East and West Africa, scores of academics, politicians, African American pan-Africanists, some of whom had been to the famed Manchester pan-African congress of 1945 and were very much aware of Zik’s grand influence.
Ikejiani was not able to attend that final conference, being sick already 80 at the time, the frequent flyer lifestyle was one he needed to put in check. But he had been with us in 1996 when I brought him over to be keynote speaker at the memorial the Nigerian community held for Zik at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at Columbia University . Then he had spent the weekend with crowds cramming my sitting room as he reflected on an age that was already becoming mythical a mere half century later.
It was in that spirit that I had convinced him to write the Foreword to my book on Zik, The Man Called Zik of New Africa: A Portrait of Nigeria’s Pan-Africanist Statesman (the title was modified for the second edition). I recall the foregoing piece of history because of its relationship to Ikejiani who should be remembered, not just for his many other sterling attainments as medical director at Glace Bay Hospital, Canada; as a former Pro-Chancellor, University of Ibadan, as author, Education in Nigeria, as chairman of the Nigerian railways when it actually worked, and as a humanist whose training in medicine belied a larger intellectual capability. I recall also a man of culture, dignity and sense of history. A man of character, too. His account of Zik’s generosity in opening the doors to higher education and sponsoring as many as he could for the trans-Atlantic quest for the Golden Fleece as they called it in those days, speaks to a side of the Owelle that few biographers have dwelt on. It also shows Ikejiani as a man able to appreciate a good turn in life and speak to its lasting value. Here is an excerpt from the Foreword.
The first time I saw the late Right Honorable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was at Onitsha on November 17, 1934 at the Native Court hall, at a reception given in his honor by the community. I was just completing my first year of high school at the Dennis Memorial Grammar School , Onitsha . I went along with some students to the lecture. The hall was full and packed and we were not able to gain entrance to the hall. We listened to his lecture standing outside the building. The late Rt. Hon. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe spoke of what a new African could equally do. He told us that Nigeria must be free from colonialism to achieve such equality. For the first time my life, I began to understand what colonialism meant and to question it. I discarded the idea previously held by us that we were inferior to white people.
Between 1935 and 1936, The African Morning Post, the newspaper which Azikiwe published and edited in Accra , Gold Coast - now known as Ghana - reached us on a regular basis. We read and crammed most of its editorials and leading columns, and for the first time, we began to believe that this man Zik was God-sent to Africa .
The first time I met Zik in person was not until 1937, when he had returned from Accra , Ghana , to Onitsha . I was a third year student in secondary school. On a Sunday morning, as was usual practice, as we marched in groups to Christ Church located near the River Niger water-side, four of us left our group and made our way to the house where Zik was staying along the New Market Road , almost opposite Venn Road . When we said to the people there that we wanted to see Zik, a tall man standing in front of the house said to us, "I am Zik. What can I do for you?" I replied on behalf of all of us with great trepidation, "Sir, we want to go to America ." He replied and told us that if our parents or guardians could provide fifty pounds a year each for us, he could help us to go to America . We all ran away back to the dormitory informing those who would listen that Zik would help us go to America .
I met Zik again in Lagos on December 1938. I was one of the eight young men who met him at his West Africa Pilot office, Market Street , Lagos , when he again asked us, "What can I do for you?" We replied that he told us that he would help us to go to America if our parents or guardians could afford to support us with fifty pounds a year. "Do you have the fifty pounds and the transportation money?" he asked us, and we replied in unison, "Yes, Sir." He counted the money we brought, which was in shillings and pennies.
My money contained one pound and ten shillings counterfeit! I was distraught and began to cry. He comforted me and replaced the counterfeit money. He proceeded to make all the arrangements for all of us. True enough, came December 1938, the eight of us left Apapa and sailed for the United States of America to embark on further studies. It was a very historic event in Nigeria with throngs of people coming to see us off at the wharf.
Zik assisted dozens of Africans to go on to the United States for university education. In assisting and helping us and those that had gone before us, like late Kwame Nkrumah just about a year after he has returned to Nigeria from Ghana was a great way of showing the light. K.O. Mbadiwe, A.A. Nwafor Orizu, and others like Jones-Quartey, Karimu Disu, Kalu Ezera, etc., all travelled under his aegis.
I met Zik again in August 1948 when I returned from the United States of America and Canada , after many years of sojourn there. It happened that my wife was a white lady, nee Marjorie Carter. Rumor had reached the Igbo State Union that I was returning with wife. The Igbo Union executives met with Zik and informed him about what they had heard. They said that because of that, they would not give me the reception they were planning for me. He asked them whether I wrote to them that I was returning and they should accord me a reception. They said no. He thereupon told that he did not think that I would be expecting their reception. Zik added that he was going to Apapa to meet me and my wife and that we were going to be his host as long as we stayed in Lagos . That shocked them and completely cured them of the race hatred which they harbored. That notwithstanding, I was given receptions galore on our return wherever we went throughout Igboland.
From the moment of my return in 1948, a deep and abiding friendship developed between Zik and I. This friendship grew by leaps and bounds over the years - and I came to learn a lot about him. From that incident in 1948, I realized that this man called Zik was not prejudiced against white people. As an Igbo, like him, raised in the same environment that influenced his basic character, I communicated with him in the same language and understood the riddles and real meanings behind his remarks, statements and messages. Our friendship throughout the years until his death, was based on mutual trust and respect. As one brought up in the tradition of Igbo custom, Zik was my elder in age and indeed in everything else. Igbo society believes that although no condition is permanent, still no human society can achieve absolute equality for its citizens as there are distinctions of age, sex and wealth. Yet the dignity of every man was absolute. For instance, I am self-assertive as an Igbo, and Zik respected and valued it; as an Igbo also, I am not subservient, nor do I pay unquestionable obedience to everything Zik said. Zik admired and respected that also.
Zik had great faith in the immense ability of the peasantry to understand, and believed that they were just waiting to be enlightened. ..The editorials in the newspapers, especially those of the West African Pilot, were complemented by the humor, intelligence and acerbic satires of the various columnists. Among the best known columns were "Inside Stuff," written by Zik himself; "As I see it" by O.A Alakija; "A New Education for a New Africa" by Professor Eyo Ita; among others. The writers were all nationalists, and their essays were not only nationalistic but also educational. They showed black Africans and Nigerians the light. Many became prodigious readers, enabling them to acquire the dramatic force of conviction that propelled them to dare. Those columns became a form of literature for every school boy and girl, every worker, every one who could read and write. Certainly there began in Nigeria and all black Africa , a period of enlightenment, and the flowering of a new set of ideas about colonial rule and freedom from it.
As an instrument of propagating nationalism, equality of mankind and self-pride, their anti-colonial and nationalistic effect on the generation, our generation, and the era between 1937 and 1960 was unparalleled. No other previous or contemporary anti-colonial newspaper in Nigeria or elsewhere in black Africa had produced anything comparable in their influence towards a national spirit and towards Nigerian oneness.