Uche Chukwumerije: Exit of a Comrade
Mignon McLaughlin, the late American journalist and author, tells us that the death of someone we know always reminds us that we are still alive – perhaps for some purpose, which we ought to re-examine. Any such re-examination however usually leads to the ageless philosophical questions about life and death. What is really life? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Is there an afterlife? If yes, what type of existence takes place there?
The news of the transition, on Sunday 19 April 2015, of Comrade (Senator) Uche Chukwumerije raised all of the above questions in me.
Our paths first crossed in 2012. I met him at the dental clinic, Smile, in Abuja's Central Business District. I had gone for a dental check-up and Senator Chukwumerije had just been attended to. Dressed in his trademark white tunic, white trousers and white shoes, I went and greeted him and tried to chat him up for some minutes. I requested and got his telephone number but for some reasons I never called him.
Our paths were to cross again in 2013. The Senator was looking for 'a seasoned academic' with knowledge of the history of Organisation of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) to work with him on a collection of his journalistic writings on the organisation in the 1960s and 1970s. I was 'strongly' recommended to him. When I met him we spent several hours in his home talking not just about the compilation, which had been done by a local printer, but about Nigerian and African politics. I gave him several suggestions on how I felt the manuscript should be updated to make meaning to a contemporary reader. He gave me other materials – mostly his speeches, which he said he would like me to read and suggest ways of 'polishing' them into books. We met about three times to review my recommendations.
I assured the Senator that though my schedule would not permit me to personally do the research for updating the manuscripts; I would search and recruit a competent hand to do it and would also supervise the work. The Senator was also very pleased that my publishing firm, Adonis & Abbey Publishers ( www.adonis-abbey.com ) would publish the books, especially when he heard we have international distributions in Europe, North America and Australia. However, as often happens with Nigerian politicians, for inexplicable reasons the Senator suddenly stopped picking my calls or replying to my emails. His PA would just ask me to exercise patience and that the Senator was dealing with a “situation”. I tucked away his manuscripts somewhere and forgot all about it.
About December last year, a very close friend who is an SA to a top officer of the House of Representatives dropped by my home and said he wanted to print a press release on behalf of his boss. It was about the 'transition' of Chukwumerije. We talked about the Senator's 'death' and my 'aborted' book project with the Senator and how I would love to return the materials that the Senator gave me.
About the 4th or 5th of March, in the morning, I received a phone call. The voice was husky and the number was not stored in my phone. “Am I speaking to Dr Jideofor Adibe”, the voice asked.
“I am Senator Uche Chukwumerije”. My heart began to pound. Did I hear well? I was trembling and beads of sweat immediately gathered on my clean shaven head. Did I not read a press release about his transition a few months before? Hang on: was it a cruel joke or was I speaking to a ghost? I tried my best to sound calm on the phone.
“Can you please try to see me about 3 pm today? It is rather urgent. Will it be possible?” The weak and husky voice was almost pleading.
“Yes sir. I will Sir”. I wasn't sure if I said this out of fear or out of eagerness to bring the phone conversation to a quick end.
As soon as I dropped the phone I put a frantic call to my friend. His phone line at that point chose not to connect. Though I had promised the voice I would honour the invitation, I was not prepared to do so until I had clarified the issue of his 'death'. After several attempted calls to my friend over the next hour or so, the call finally connected.
“Someone who claimed to be Senator Chukwumerije spoke to me. Is he not supposed to be dead?” My friend then explained that there had been rumours of his death, that he was lucky that he had not sent out the press release before it was confirmed that the Senator was only rushed out of the country for medical attention. Convinced now that I had not spoken to a ghost, I prepared and honoured the 3 pm appointment.
He had always met me in his lounge but this time I was asked to go upstairs to meet him in his bedroom. I was panicked at what I saw. He was very skeletal and apparently was breathing with the aid of oxygen machine and pipes. The room seemed like a mini hospital. I tried to control my shock but I took consolation in the fact that he was still mentally alert.
He told me he would like us to restart the idea of the book project. This time he had several other book projects in his mind – about five or so. I advised we should collapse all into no more than three books. Since that visit, I became a regular face in his compound, visiting him, for sundry reasons, on average three times a week. At each visit there would be new ideas for another book project. He told me the doctors had projected it would take him about six months- to- one year to fully recover so he would like to be productive during the recuperative period.
One of the things we agreed upon was to do his memoirs. I found the story he told me about his involvement in Biafra very exciting. He said he had first-hand knowledge about the “attempted coup” against Ojukwu during the civil war. I persuaded him that his memoirs would be worth it. He bought into the idea. I then recommended that Dan Agbese, an ace columnist and one of the founders of the original Newswatch, should work with him on the project. I called Dan and persuaded him to take on the task of helping the Senator put it together. Dan and I had struck friendship after we worked on his authoritative biography of Babangida – Babanginda: The Military, Power and Politics in Nigeria. Senator Chukwumerije was really excited that Dan agreed to work with him on his memoirs. He had tremendous respect for him.
Dan, after telephone discussions with the Senator on the project, flew to Abuja from Lagos, for the first meeting with the Senator and me on March 25 2015. We discussed possible methodologies of the work and agreed that Dan would interview him a number of times, and with the benefit of the Senator's writings and other information about him in the public domain, Dan would present draft memoirs for him to go through. We estimated that both the interview and the write-up of the work would take about five months.
Meanwhile, I had also succeeded in recruiting a Dr Essien to do research on the OAU book, which seemed dear to the Senator. I recommended a remuneration package for Dr Essien, which the Senator also accepted. It was agreed that Dr Essien would submit his work in four or five batches, with the first batch slated to be ready by Monday April 20 2015. I constantly checked on Dr Essien to ensure that he was on course to meeting the deadline and would relay same to the Senator.
On the evening of Sunday, April 19, I got a call from Dr Essien. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw his name on the screen was: “I hope he is not going to give any excuse for not meeting the Monday deadline because the Senator won't find it funny”. The Senator had a sense of urgency towards these publications.
Dr Essien asked if listened to AIT news. I told him that regrettably I don't watch much TV. “Well, the Senator is gone”.
“What”? I bellowed. I was quite confused. I immediately put a call to Dan and asked if he had had the news about Senator Chukwumerije. Dan told me he had not heard anything and that the Senator had called him on Saturday April 18 (a day before his transition) at about 11 pm and discussed his proposed work schedule and asked him to beef it up. He said he had emailed the revised version to the Senator about two minutes before I called to tell him of his transition.
Uche Chukwumerije, born in November 1939, has been a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria since April 2003, representing Abia North Senatorial District. He died of lung cancer on Sunday, April 19, 2015.
Though death awaits everyone, the suddenness of Chukwumerije's transition after appearing to be making good recovery – sharply reminds us, that in our own journey from the unknown to the unknown, our own apocalypse will inevitably arrive one day, and at a time we do not know. Adieu Comrade!
Jideofor Adibe can be reached at: [email protected]
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