With the death in the early hours of March 4, 2017, of Benedict Ebele Obumselu, Africa and indeed the world have been robbed of one of the most formidable minds in recent times. Whether in oral pronouncements or in writing or even in the manner he walked and gesticulated, Obumselu exhibited delightful scholarship—graceful, elegant and calm. He was one of the most learned men I have ever met anywhere, in the class of Isaiah Berlin, the erstwhile Jewish Oxford University vice chancellor whom Arthur Schlesinger, President Kennedy’s special assistant and great historian at the City University of New York, described as arguably the greatest man of letters in the 20th century. Michael J. C. Echeruo, poet, critic and university administrator who was to retire as William Sapphire professor of Modern Letters at Syracuse University in New York, called Obumselu the greatest African literary scholar of his generation.
Obumselu was the first president of the association of Nigerian university students and the first English graduate of the University College, Ibadan. He was studying for a Bachelor of Arts (general) degree at Ibadan which was then affiliated to the University College, London, when the degree programme in English was introduced in the 1950s, so he switched to the new course because the single honours programme was very prestigious in those days in Nigeria. He had yet to graduate when he was offered admission at Oxford to study for the Doctor of Philosophy degree without reading for a Master’s. It was based on the strong recommendations of his lecturers at Ibadan. While an undergraduate Obumselu had acquired the accent and mannerisms of a typical Oxford don, and fellow students like Emeka Anyaoku, who was to become the Commonwealth secretary general, used to derive pleasure from watching him speak.
He returned to Ibadan in the 1960s, teaching people like Stanley Macebuh, Dan Izavbeye, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jim Nwobodo, Theo Vincent, Molara Ogundipe, etc. At the public presentation of Saro-Wiwa’s Prisoners of Jebs at Sheraton Hotel in Lagos in 1989, Obumselu displayed scintillating scholarship in his review of the book, delighting the audience with his range of philosophical speculation. Agreeing and disagreeing with various authorities, members of the audience like Cyprian Ekwensi, Ray Ekpu, Theo Vincent and Odia Ofeimun were swept off their feet, all the more since he spoke without written notes. Saro-Wiwa, not a man generous with praise, told the people how he was privileged to “worship at the feet of eminent scholars like Obumselu at Ibadan”. Ken never ceased to thank me for bringing Obumselu to speak at the book launch.
As Nigeria’s political crisis of the late 1960s deteriorated, Obumselu, like most Eastern Nigerians outside their homeland, fled home. He became one of Biafran leader Emeka Ojukwu’s closest advisers. He played a vital role in producing Ojukwu’s famous Ahiara Declaration of 1968, one of the greatest speeches by any African leader ever. This role was to put him in danger when the war ended. Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, whose 3rd Marine Commando Division defeated Biafra on January 12, 1970, furtively advised him to leave Nigeria immediately. People like Pius Okigbo, Africa’s most decorated economist and Obumselu’s close friend and intellectual soul mate, were to be incarcerated by the Nigerian authorities for long for their roles in Biafra.
Obumselu then travelled to Oxford which was just pleased to offer one of its brightest alumni a job, thus making him one of the few Africans ever to be given an academic position at the most prestigious British university. But the post would not be available till the next academic session. This was quite tough for someone who had just emerged from a most ruinous war with practically no money, and so he settled for the University of Birmingham, another very prestigious institution. He then moved to the Sorbonne, Europe’s second oldest university and the most prestigious in France. Disenchanted with little global attention to African affairs, Obumselu returned to Africa where he became practically a peripatetic scholar. He taught at universities in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Zambia and Botswana. He was on his way to the American University in Egypt when Jim Nwobodo, then Anambra State governor, pleaded with him to join his government.
I was watching the newly established Anambra Television Service in Enugu when Dan Ibekwe, a banker turned broadcaster who spoke with a BBC accent and endowed with an incredible forensic skill, introduced Obumselu in his current affairs programme. I was surprised that the programme’s guest was already a full professor because his exceedingly good looks made him look like someone in his early 30s. I was charmed by the guest’s great insights and eloquence and calmness. The next day I set out to meet Ibekwe so that he could link me to his guest whom I had never heard of till the previous night. Good a thing, Obumselu’s office was a stone’s throw from Ibekwe’s. Obumselu was so genial and humble when we met. We struck a lifelong friendship from that very day in 1982, despite the considerable difference in age.
His influence on me is far-reaching, even in speech. I profited tremendously from his vast learning. In our several discussions and debates over sundry issues, he would say something like this: “C. Don, you have spoken well about the concept of change in society. Now, address me on change from the perspective of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind”. Obumselu was also at home with economic and development matters. I frequently picked his brain. The trio of Ukpabi Asika, Pius Okigbo and Obumselu were my greatest sources of informal learning. I am proud Obumselu and his delectable wife named Fidelia were the official witnesses at my private wedding at St Agnes Catholic Church in Lagos, even though he was Anglican. He expressed delight at the intellectual richness of the homily by the officiating priest, a Ghanaian research student at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, affiliated to the University of Calabar, Cross River State.
Obumselu was deeply worried at the political decline of the Igbo people and devoted the last two decades to the Igbo cause. He relocated from Lagos to Enugu and worked with Ohaneze Ndigbo. He provided intellectual leadership in the emergence of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). He had earlier worked hard at getting the Igbo and the Yoruba to work together in what was famously known as the handshake across the Niger. He was the Ohaneze candidate for the post of Secretary to the Government of the Federation in 2011, but President Goodluck Jonathan eventually settled for Pius Anyim.
An indigene of Oba in Anambra State, Obumselu was born in 1930. Though he did not return to the university environment since he retired from the Imo (now Abia) State University as the dean of the arts school in 1988, he was still publishing in some of the world’s greatest academic journals up to the time he took ill recently. He wrote a scintillating essay for Johns Hopkins University’s journal on literary ideas on the sources of James Cary’s work. He disagreed with Chinua Achebe that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist novel, arguing that Achebe read it when he did “as a generalist rather than an expert”. His article on African writing and the influence of Marxism has been published in several books and journals, including World Literature. Obumselu was an authority on Russian and South African literatures. Only a few days to his death I found myself re-reading his “Andre Brink: A Historian of the South African Liberation”, published in African Commentary in June, 1990. I did not know death was lurking around. May he rest in peace.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.