His time came, as it does for all mortals, on Sunday, April 26. Now Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, social, activist, journalist, publisher and politician, is spoken of in the past tense. With his going, perhaps the last but one petal in the rose of our Nigerian socialism has fallen. I can see that only Adams Oshiohmole, governor of Edo State, a labour activist and leader turned a shrewd politician, is about the only man now who proudly tends the flickering lights of socialism in the country – after a fashion.
Chukwumerije loved the title of comrade. Vice-Admiral Murtala Nyako called him the last comrade south of the Sahara. Many people remember him for his fierce and fiery rhetoric in the seventies. In those days, socialists distinguished themselves by their unruly face fur and fiery speeches intended to afflict capitalists. Chukwumerije showed in every respect that he was a member of that tribe He sounded off in his monthly features pan-African magazine, Africscope.
He cut his journalism teeth on Zik’s famous newspaper, The West African Pilot. His work at the newspaper probably convinced him that the newspaper was the most potent and reliable weapon in the struggle for supremacy between capitalism and socialism. His decision to publish his Africscope was evidence he thought it wise to arm properly arm himself to rail against capitalism, neo-colonialism and all the other negative isms that plagued Africa.
What I found consistently remarkable about him was his consuming belief that it was possible for third world countries to take the best from capitalism and marry it with the best from socialism and produce a unique economic system peculiarly geared towards the special economic needs of under-developed and developing countries. He never got around to producing that formula.
Chukwumerije was a warm and friendly man. I cannot now recall how we met but I admired his fearless rhetoric. When he was appointed secretary for information in the interim national government headed by Chief Ernest Shonekan after the June 12, 1973 presidential election was annulled, he was clearly uncomfortable but he put his heart into his job for what it was worth. I know he lost some of his admirers who believed that his recruitment into that administration was a disservice to his own political principles.
He remedied much of that when he proved a formidable opposition in the senate to President Obasanjo’s third term agenda. He and a group of senators visited us at Newswatch to make and push their case. They, apparently, were preaching to the converted. The magazine was stoutly opposed to the constitutional amendment too. As we saw them off to their cars, the comrade pulled me aside and said, “We must join hands and save this country. If he can get three terms, he can also ask for four terms. We are relying on the press to do its duty to God and country.”
We did not get to see or talk often. Just occasionally.I once I saw him at the foyer of the Nicon-Corp in Abuja. I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He turned to me but failed to recognise me. When I called my name, he exclaimed, “Oh, Dan, I am sorry. You know we are growing old.”
I should know.
Our meeting in his house in Abuja on March 25 turned out to be our last. We met at his request. Dr. Jideofor Adibe, whose company published my biography of former President Ibrahim Babangida, arranged the meeting. I was shocked to see that he was virtually bed ridden. I did not even know he was ill. Despite his pains, he tried to be a good host. But I could see that much of his ebullience had ebbed considerably although he remained up beat.
He had decided to put out three publications in the next five or six months. One was his biography; the two others would be collections of his columns and his contributions to debates in the senate. He wanted me to help him work on his biography or memoir. We discussed the pros and cons of a biography versus a memoir within the limited time frame and settled on a memoir. He expressed his joy that I had agreed “to do this for me.”
It did not pan out. I worked on the structure of the intended publication and submitted it to him a week later. I then revised it. He trusted me enough to do a good job that he simply told me to get on with it. I was set to do that. He phoned me after 11 p.m. on the night of April 25. He was not coherent and so I did not hear most of what he had to say. I told him I had emailed him the revised structure of his proposed memoir.
Two minutes after I re-emailed it to him on the evening of April 26. Two minutes after I emailed him another copy, Adibe called me at about 8.30 p.m. He said, “Dan, have you heard?” Someone just called me to say that he heard on the eight o’clock news that the senator is dead.”
I promised I would cross check with the senator’s aide and get back to him. The aide confirmed the senator died at 5.30 that evening.
Uche Chukwumerije lived a pretty colourful life. I think it was a tragic mistake for him to think of telling his story so late only when it was clear to him that at 75the tide of mortality was gradually washing over him. His story will never be told. He has taken it with him into his grave. May his comradely soul rest in piece.