A salute to a fallen comrade

Urhobo Historical Society

A Salute to A Fallen Comrade, Paying Tribute to:

Dr. Paul Kofi Egbo (1945 – 2011)

By Onoawarie Edevbie

Dr. Paul Kofi Egbo passed away in the early evening of Sunday, June 5, 2011 after a long illness. I visited Dr. Egbo at the nursing center where he spent the last days of his life, some three weeks before he succumbed to his illness. During the visit which turned out to be my last encounter with him, it was hard for me to imagine what he was going through, let alone could I describe my feelings of loss for a man that I had worked with closely on many issues that concerned humanity. Those of us who knew him well can say, without hesitation, that he lived and died a brave man, unshaken in his belief that the only thing that matters in life is the courage one brings to bear on it. My relationship with Paul had blossomed because of our common belief and dedication to the cause of humanity, much of which I credit to him. He became a close friend and a fellow activist, who in his sixty-six years on earth had been a vocal proponent of peace, an advocate for human rights, and a stalwart progressive before it was popular to be one. Like many who have taken the liberty to show appreciation for the services of other activists that preceded him in death, I could do no less for my friend, Dr. Paul Kofi Egbo, than to salute him for his contributions towards the cause of peace and social justice.

Paul’s romance with political activism started early in his life. When he was ten years old, his father David Egbo, a cocoa farmer, sent him home to Nigeria from Nima where Paul was born and spent the early part of his life. Nima, a suburb of the Ghanaian capital City of Accra was a poor neighborhood largely populated by a mixture of immigrants from Northern Ghana and a number of African countries. The population of Urhobo people in Nima was comparatively small when matched against those of other groups. David Egbo was once the President of Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) in the Greater Accra region in Ghana. Paul’s father was concerned that he might not be able to raise his son in the Urhobo way in a Nima type of environment. The only option out of his dilemma was to send Paul home to live among his people in Urhobo where the young man, could learn the ways of the people. Uncle James Egbo, with whom Paul lived at Orerokpe, Nigeria, the traditional headquarters of Okpe sub-cultural unit of Urhobo people, was a strict disciplinarian. Uncle was not one to brood over any nonsense. He kept a tight fist over his nephew and ensured that Paul stayed the course as specified by daddy David. Paul however found an opportunity to break out from the strict guardianship of Uncle James in 1960 when he moved away from home to attend secondary school, Government College, Ughelli (GCU). The school, the earliest of its kind in Urhobo, was among a number of schools that were established by the British Colonial administration to prepare young ones for work in colonial civil service in Nigeria. Paul’s years at GCU coincided with the early period of Nigeria’s independence from Great Britain, a colonial master that had occupied Nigeria for some 100 years (1861-1960). The GCU years were also part of the times when many young ones, like Paul, began to understand why Nigerian political activists, highly protective of Nigeria’s newly won independence were resentful and openly critical of British colonial rule. Obviously, young Paul was exposed to what many of his teachers regarded as ‘acts of hooliganism’ by fellow students. The acts were not reckless but in the main expressions of disgust with what many saw as years of colonial exploitation in Nigeria. The expressions, mild as they were, nevertheless created and spread seeds of political radicalism that ultimately were to germinate and dominate the lives of many Nigerians in later years. During his years at GCU, Paul must also have known about how the undergraduate students of Nigerian premier university, then called University College, Ibadan marched on the Nigeria’s Parliament sitting in the Nigerian capital City of Lagos, to call for the abrogation of the Anglo-Nigeria Defence Pact. The agreement had been ratified by both the British and Nigerian Parliaments in November of 1960 but was to be unilaterally abrogated by Nigeria’s Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on January 22, 1962, in face of stiff opposition from the Nigerian public. The pact, were it allowed to stand, would have given Great Britain, free access to Nigeria’s air space and use of Nigeria’s military for British foreign military interventions anywhere in the world. The lessons learnt from the success of this campaign were certainly not lost on the young minds of Dr. Egbo’s generation in Nigeria.

After completing his secondary education at Government College, Ughelli, in 1964, Paul seemed ready for a life of political and social activism. He got his first taste of radicalism in union activities at Port Harcourt, Nigeria when he worked for Shell British Petroleum, an Anglo-Dutch multinational oil-conglomerate. He became at twenty-four, perhaps the youngest person ever to serve as a secretary of an oil-workers union in Nigeria.  The involvement in trade unionism provided him a close look at the clandestine ways of how oil companies connived with the Nigerian government to exploit oil resources in his native Urhobo and other parts of western Niger Delta of Nigeria, for the benefits of people outside the region. As an oil worker, Paul knew how insensitive oil companies, particularly Shell, had become to the needs of the environment and the welfare of the people of oil-producing communities. The oil companies operated cheaply and with out-dated equipment in ways that inflicted severe ecological and environmental damage, which would have been considered intolerable in countries where government and business are held accountable for their actions. Added to his agony was the curtailment of free speech and movement, which was imposed by the Nigerian military when it seized control of the government in a military coup on January 15, 1966. Paul must have watched with disdain, as other Nigerians did as the political and social events led to the three-year (1967-1970) Nigerian civil war, which by some estimates claimed over one million lives.

In many of my conversations with Paul, he painted for me the grim images of life during the civil war. I knew very little of what happened during the civil war, before our discussions as I was living at the time with an older brother in Lagos, far away from the theatre of war in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. I recall one account of a graphic scene of trains over-loaded with traumatized Ibos, returning home from Kano and other parts of Northern Nigeria. The Ibos were fleeing from the pogrom that was being committed against them in the wake of yet another military coup on July 29, 1966.  Lt. Colonel Ojukwu, then Military Governor of Eastern Region of Nigeria, was visibly shaken by the atrocities in Northern Nigeria. He was on hand at the train station in Port Harcourt, crying profusely and holding fellow Ibos in his arms as he welcomed them home. The narration about the scene at the train station was not only depressing but also sensational; it was to me reminiscent of how Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a newly appointed Prime Minister of Pakistan, reacted to the arrival of 90,000 prisoners of war from India.  The Prime Minister, as the leader of a nation reeling from a humiliating defeat in a 1971 war with India, was said to have been filled with emotion as he received train-loads of soldiers arriving from detention camps in India. Paul also told me many stories about horrors of killing of innocent and unarmed civilians by soldiers, he witnessed at Port Harcourt and in Ughelli, where he lived after he returned home from the East. He had to leave Shell, when Ibo leaders and others led by Colonel Ojukwu declared the eastern part of Nigeria, the Republic of Biafra, independent of Nigeria.  The Biafran leader asked all non-easterners to leave as he could no longer guarantee their safety in the newly declared State. The Nigerian Military responded by initiating in May of 1967, what they called a police action, which turned into a full-blown war to arrest Biafran leaders and reunite the country.

Life for a refugee from Biafra was probably too lonely for Paul’s active mind. He took part-time positions in Benin City, Nigeria with Radio Nigeria-Benin sometime in 1967 and later with the Bendel Arts Council where he was assigned to the Drama Section. One could say that these positions helped to expose Paul to a number of talented artists that had a tremendous impact on his life and career.  He met a fellow Urhobo man, Newman Okoh, a veteran Nigerian news broadcaster with whom he forged a life-long friendship. Paul’s tenure at Radio Nigeria spanned the period before the Biafran Military Forces invaded and occupied the then Midwest State of Nigeria to sometime after the State was liberated by Nigerian Federal troops. He had the opportunity to introduce Colonel Murtala Muhammed, who led the Federal troops into Midwest State of Nigeria, and Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, then the newly appointed Military Governor of the State on air each time they visited to use the radio to address the people.  During his time at Bendel Arts Council, Paul met another Urhobo person, Edward Onaodowan who co-directed the Bendel State Drama entry at the Nigerian National Arts Festival of 1974/75. The Arts Council was established sometime after the Midwest State had been renamed as the Bendel State of Nigeria.

The National Arts Festival was held to select Nigerian entries in various categories of arts and culture for participation in the Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), an international event scheduled for 1975. The Bendel entry for drama was based on the play, Home to the River, written by Neville Ukoli, an Urhobo, a former Editor and General Manager of the Nigerian Observer, to emphasize themes in Urhobo traditional funeral rites and a number of Urhobo cultural institutions. The entry was in competition with many others, including those from the University of Ibadan (Our Husbands have gone mad again), the University of Ife (Lamgbodo) and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (The Lost Finger). Paul, who was a member of the production staff at the Bendel Arts Council at the time, was among those who helped to provide the necessary logistics for the production of the play, Home to the River. The Bendel entry came in first in the competition and was to be presented as the Nigerian Drama entry at FESTAC, which was held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977, two years later than the originally scheduled date of 1975. Unfortunately, the delay gave room for political maneuvering, which caused the play, Home to the River, to be replaced by Lamgbodo as the official choice for Nigerian entry for drama. FESTAC was rated at the time, as the largest and most attended festival of arts and culture of all black people in the world.

However, Paul was not a member of the Bendel contingent that eventually went to FESTAC in 1977. He had left in 1973, following an award of scholarship by the Bendel Arts Council, to do a one-year Diploma course in Drama and Theatre at the University of Ibadan (UI). In the summer holidays of 1974, Paul was among a group of Nigerian students who were selected to visit the United States as guests of the US State Department, to attend an educational program on Moral Rearmament in Washington D.C. The Arts Council was said to have been pleased with his performance and decided to extend Paul’s scholarship to allow him complete a degree program in Drama and Theatre. Upon graduation in 1975, he returned to Radio Nigeria, now Radio Bendel to work. He later left to accompany a friend, a faculty member he met during his years at UI to the University of Calabar, in Calabar, Nigeria, which was one of the new institutions of higher learning that was established after the civil war in Nigeria. With the assistance of this friend, Paul was hired by the University of Calabar in 1977. The University was said to have been so impressed with the work of the new hire that in 1978, it gave Paul an academic scholarship that brought him to Michigan State University (MSU) in 1979 for graduate studies. Qualified faculty was hard to come by in the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war. Many universities, particularly the newly established ones, had to arrange for various academic programs to help upgrade the academic qualifications of those they considered to have the potential to excel in academics.

Paul‘s arrival at MSU coincided with the era of mass student protest against the apartheid regime of South Africa, which was sweeping across university campuses in the United States and other parts of the world. One might have expected that Paul, already traumatized by the horrors of Nigerian civil war, would rather avoid distractions from protests on campus in order to pay serious attention to his studies and return to his job at Calabar, Nigeria. But he was not one to run away from any fight that he believed was being waged for the cause of human dignity. Paul got involved; plotting and organizing protests by Nigerian and other African students at MSU to draw attention to inhumane policies directed by the apartheid regime against Africans in their land. In the midst of the anti-apartheid movement, Paul was elected the President of African Students Union at MSU in 1982 in recognition of his leadership qualities. As President, Paul helped to shift the focus of the union from one of mere socializing to that of involvement in a campaign to draw the world’s attention to the problems of poverty and political instability in Africa. He emphasized his vision for the Student Union when he spoke at the United Nations Association (UNA) of Michigan Convention in East Lansing, Michigan. The speech, which was well received, was an introduction of the keynote speaker for the day, Howard Wolpe, a congressman representing Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District in the US House of Representatives. The congressman at the time was the chair of the Subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Paul used the opportunity to draw the attention of the United States Government to the importance of not neglecting Africa in its foreign policy. Furthermore, Paul decided to produce, direct and act in the play, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, to draw attention to the evils of apartheid, at the Wharton Center, MSU in 1985. The play was written by Athol Fugard, a white South African, in collaboration with two African actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, both of whom appeared in the original production on October 8, 1972 in Cape Town, South Africa. The play later made its British debut in the United Kingdom, where it won the London Theatre Critics Award for the Best Play of 1974.

Although he was busy with various campus activities, Paul never strayed away from his studies, even when his scholarship was withdrawn and he had to rely on meager on-campus jobs to survive. In the midst of his various forms of involvement and struggle to survive, he met his wife, Carol Bacak, an Africanist and a former Fulbright-Hay Group Projects Abroad Scholar to the Tanzania Ministry of Education and the University of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa in 1979. Carol at the time she met Paul, was employed by Waterford Schools, Waterford, Michigan and was doing an outreach work on African Studies for the African Studies Center at MSU.  In the course of her work, the Center asked Carol to facilitate another production of Paul’s version of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in the Detroit area. She went to Lansing several times to discuss the project with Paul, and they grew to become friends. By the time I was introduced by mutual friends to him in the summer of 1992, Paul had completed his studies, having earned an MA degree in Communications and a Ph.D in Education (Instructional Technology), from MSU. He was living with his wife Carol, a fellow MSU alumina and their infant son, Eghele in the Detroit suburban and former auto-manufacturing city of Pontiac, Michigan. He had just left his employment with the Education Department of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where he had served as the Curator for Education (1989 – 1991). The couple had become a working team; had founded the AFAM International Educational Consultancy and a publishing house. As educators, they organized series of workshops and published a number of educational materials on multicultural and multiethnic issues for use in K–12 education in the United States. The publications were intended to help teach young ones about Africa by dispelling myths about African personality, image and way of life. Paul and his wife Carol were also called upon, as nationally recognized experts, to teach Education courses on Africa in the summers of 1986 and 1987 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

During subsequent contacts, Paul and I found much to talk about, whether it was political issues or the promotion of Urhobo culture that we both shared. My relationship with the Egbo family blossomed and I was always welcomed to their home. We even planned to go together into real estate and the business of helping Nigerians to remit money home, long before Western Union and Money Gram became household words among Nigerians. My association with the Egbo family, especially during the New Year Eve parties they hosted each year, provided me with an opportunity to meet many people including students, the couple’s colleagues at work and others from their MSU days. Apart from merriment amidst food, drinks, music and dancing, these gatherings were also happy occasions for political and social discussions, especially those that dealt with the issues of poverty and bad governance in Africa. The discussions had a way of getting heated and some of the Africans among us often became emotional about finding ways to deal with the socio-political problems that continue to plague our different home countries. The first offshoot of these gatherings was the formation of the Africa2000, a socio-political movement with members drawn from former MSU students from South Sudan, Somalia, Ghana, Sierra-Leone and Nigeria and other individuals from Kenya, Eritrea, Tanzania, and Uganda. The first meeting of the group was held at the African Studies Center at MSU, with an opening address from Dr. David Wiley, then the Director of the Center. At a subsequent convention, Paul worked hard to get me elected the Secretary and himself the President of the new organization. The group met many times at MSU, Pontiac, and Rochester Hills.

Many members of Africa2000 held positions in academia notably in the local schools at MSU, Wayne State University, University of Michigan and Oakland University. They were all involved in intellectual yet, serious discussions, using material evidence from scholarly publications that analyzed many of the socio-political problems of many African countries. Perhaps it may not be too far a stretch to compare the group to the British Fabian Society that was founded by intellectual giants such as Bernard Shaw, Herbert George Wells, Sidney Webb, Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb and John Maynard Keynes in 1884. The Society was a socialist intellectual movement whose primary goal was to move Britain towards a social democracy through gradualist and reformist rather than by revolutionist means. The group is credited in British history for being instrumental in the founding of the British Labor Party in 1900. Unlike the Fabian Society, however, Africa2000 never advanced beyond the talking stage. In fact nearly all activities were frozen when Nigeria was pushed into a political crisis, following the annulment of the results of the June 12, 1993 Presidential Election by the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babanginda. June 12 posed an immediate challenge and changed the focus of Africa2000, which, unfortunately led to fewer meetings and the eventual demise of the organization.

Africa2000, for many of us, was not sufficiently equipped to deal with the crisis in Nigeria. A new and more militant organization was needed; the result was what became known as the Nigerian Forum for Democracy, NiFoD. Paul was not content with being the Secretary of the organization alone and felt he needed help. He persuaded the group to get me to work with him as the Assistant Secretary.  As the Secretary, Paul maintained the secretariat in his home in Pontiac, Michigan. He fondly referred to his home, located in the Franklin Boulevard Historical District, as ‘The White House’ an apt description for an old farm house painted white on the outside behind which is a barn that was probably used by the original owner to keep horses and farming equipment. According to Carol, the house formerly known as the Dawson-Brown House was built in 1906 by a prominent Pontiac businessman whose father had owned one of the earliest mills in Pontiac, Michigan. The duo of us assumed full responsibility, for all administrative functions of NiFoD, often with the assistance of Carol. We drafted the constitution for the organization, wrote many communiqués, prepared pamphlets and brochures explaining our mission and objectives and organized rallies in Downtown Detroit. We also found time to attend various meetings in and out of state on behalf of the organization. We also produced an ordinance that was unanimously passed by the Detroit City Council, calling for economic sanctions against the military regime in Nigeria. The Detroit ordinance was part of a string of many others enacted by major cities in the US not only to condemn the Nigerian military but also to call on the US Government to impose economic sanctions as part of a larger effort to bring down the illegal government in Nigeria.

NiFoD became a veritable arm of the Nigerian pro-democracy movement in North America. The group met regularly on weekends in members’ homes, the University of Detroit but most often at the Manoogian Buildings at Wayne State University where Paul was teaching at the time. The organization was also registered as a member of the World Peace Council through its local Chapter, the Michigan Peace Council an affiliate of the US Peace Council. Paul and I were so elated and felt honored to have so many progressives, including political activists from all over the State of Michigan, present at a vigil we organized, at Saint Paul Cathedral in Detroit, in memory of Ken Saro Wiwa, an activist Nigerian poet and eight others. The Ogoni Nine, as they were called, became instant martyrs when they were extra-judicially executed by the Nigerian Military dictatorship of General Sanni Abacha for protesting against exploitation of oil resources in Nigeria by the military, in collusion with multinational oil corporations. Paul and I drove many times to Chicago, Illinois, Saint Paul, Minnesota, East Lansing and Ann Arbor, Michigan, to attend meetings and public rallies. We also flew to Houston, Texas for the inauguration of the National Liberation Council of Nigeria (NALICON), under the chairmanship of Professor Wole Soyinka. NALICON, under whose umbrella many Nigerian pro-democracy organizations operated, was considered too militant and on the advice of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) changed its name to the United Democratic Front of Nigeria (UDFN) to soften its image and attract much needed funding. Unlike NALICON, whose activities were limited to the United States, UDFN had member organizations in Africa, Europe and in North and South America. On a few occasions when NiFoD could not afford to sponsor the two of us, Paul had to travel alone, as he did when he attended pro-democracy meetings in Boston, Massachusetts, Johannesburg, South Africa and Dakar, Senegal. We also organized a series of events here in the Detroit area; most notably, the public lecture given by Wole Soyinka at Wayne State University to a large audience of students and prominent Detroit personalities, including MaryAnn Mahaffey, then the President of Detroit City Council, Charles H. Wright, MD, Founder of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, members of the press, the clergy and others from out of state. In spite of our successes, many members of the group grew nervous and were afraid to travel to Nigeria out of fear of being arrested, interrogated or assassinated by agents of the military junta in Nigeria. Many believed that the junta had spies taking pictures of activists, at various meetings and public rallies in the US, for the secret service in Nigeria. While no one was sure whether these fears were legitimate, many Nigerians stayed away from our rallies and movement.

Although Paul and I were involved in the pro-democracy movement, we as indigenes of Urhobo did not forget about the welfare of our people at home and in the Diaspora. We needed a platform to help organize Urhobo people in the Michigan area. Before the efforts to mobilize Urhobo people in Michigan to come together, one of the few venues for formal gathering was that offered by Mr. Bright Okagbare, at his home on Euclid Street off Woodward Avenue in Detroit, before he left in late 1970s for Nigeria. Mr. Okagbare was then the oldest Urhobo person living in Michigan. Among the activities of Urhobo people in more recent times were, the conduction of an Urhobo wedding ceremony for a couple and a naming ceremony for another. Both couples were African-American friends of the Onomake family, who chose to adopt the Urhobo culture in 1996. These activities held at the Onomake family home in Bloomfield Hills, probably motivated Ovieh Onomake and his wife, Beauty, to invite many of us, including Paul and I to form what later became known as Urhobo Association of Michigan (UAM). I volunteered to take over the office of the Secretary from the lady who held the position in the interim. By the time I relinquished my membership in the group, Paul and his wife Carol had become very active. The Association had also become a member of The Urhobo Association of North America (TUNA), an umbrella organization for all Urhobo groups in North America. Paul became Secretary and later President of UAM. Carol also served at one time as Secretary of the Michigan group. The couple was also prominent at the national level with Carol rising to become the Vice President for Publicity of TUNA for a time. Paul himself held many administrative positions, including serving as head of committees to draft constitution for the national body, as it changed its name from TUNA through Urhobo National Association of North America (UNANA) to the current Urhobo Progress Union North America (UPUNA).  The changes in name were attributed to internal squabbles and efforts to reorganize the national body. The couple attended many of the Urhobo conventions, as well as of those of other Nigerian groups, where Paul was featured prominently as a seasoned speaker, known for calling on people to action for one reason or the other.  The couple as educators, and in an obvious display of their patriotism and love for education in Urhobo, collected over many years, tons of books which were shipped, with the help of TUNA, to Nigeria to equip school libraries in Urhobo.

Paul as an Urhobo patriot, like his father, also believed strongly in the unity of Urhobo people and worked hard to bring people together each time there was a crisis of any kind. I understand that he was deeply concerned when some members of his Okpe community in North America claimed that Okpe, regarded by many as one of the sub-cultural units of Urhobo, was no longer Urhobo. This group of individuals may have chosen to ignore the facts of history and geography that place the term “Okpe” in three different locations in western Niger Delta. First, Okpe is the name of a town in Olomu clan in central Urhobo. In addition, there are two Okpe clans, one of them in Isoko and the other in northern Urhobo, with its headquarters at Orerokpe. These facts should serve as clear evidence of the origin and migration of Okpe people from a central point, some group to the south and another to the north. One could then consider the Okpe clan area bordering the Ethiope River in the north as a satellite settlement for a group of people who migrated from Olomu, whose citizens still see themselves as Urhobo. Paul regarded the individuals, involved in the agitation for an identity for Okpe people different from the all-inclusive one of Urhobo, as renegades. In dissociating himself from the group, he demanded that his name be removed from the list of the Board of Directors of the Okpe Union of North America. Some in the union had listed his name without his permission probably on the assumption that Paul as an Okpe man would not mind. They were wrong.

Although Paul and I were friends and enjoyed working together, it was not always smooth sailing. We had differences of opinions over what would be the best strategies for advancing the cause of the Nigerian pro-democracy movement and the campaign for Urhobo unity. Although the differences were regrettable, they were never about ideology, as we shared the same philosophy in our struggle for a decent life for our people. Paul to me was a hardworking but an inpatient man, one who would hardly tolerate any one that questioned his antics or motives for doing things. Our differences unfortunately degenerated with time into personal attacks, making it difficult for us to continue working together. I was pained to observe how Paul could sometimes have, what I consider an uncompromising attitude regardless of whether there was any truth to his perceptions. I say this not to cast aspersions on the many good works he did but to show how frail the human character can be. Some of us in the NiFoD executive were amazed at how Paul could plot to dilute our influence by expanding the executive to include others he felt he could work with in ways that were clearly organizationally unconstitutional. Many of the individuals he wanted to bring into the executive were not even registered members of NiFoD! This type of maneuver was particularly sad when one recognizes that our organization was set up primarily to help dislodge the Nigerian military regime, which came into power employing unconstitutional means. And here we were, supposedly a pro-democracy group, using the same type of undemocratic means to solve our problems. Unable to get his way, Paul became secretive and would share little or no information about the movement including tape recordings he made for broadcast on Radio Kudirat, a pro-democracy station that was named after the late Ms. Kudirat Abiola, the wife of Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the Nigerian Presidential Election of June 1993. He also refused to provide report on his return from a UDFN conference that he attended at Dakar, Senegal on behalf of NiFoD. I found out later through an exchange of e-mail messages with others that the Dakar Conference had ended in a crisis that split the UDFN into two factions. An election that brought in new officers, including Paul as the Information Secretary of UDFN, was considered fraudulent by some who refused to abide by the results.

Like many others, Paul was disillusioned at the turn of events in the pro-democracy movement. Paul’s dissatisfaction seemed evident when he circulated what I considered an offensive e-mail message in the midst of the crisis in UDFN. He indicated among other things that he had left what he termed as an ineffective NiFoD whose executive he accused of ‘youthful exuberance’ whatever those words meant to him. I was shocked because until when I saw the message Paul never told me or any member of the executive of his decision to resign. At the time he announced his resignation on the internet, Paul was still in possession of NiFoD documents including financial records, and still had keys to our post office box. I was perplexed by Paul’s behavior and as the Assistant Secretary I had to prepare a response which I circulated to all those who received Paul’s earlier message. Paul was so incensed with my response, which he viewed as a form of character assassination, that he asked his lawyers to demand a retraction from me within a week or face the possibility of a lawsuit. Two other friends, whom he probably felt were in collusion with me, received the same threat from his lawyers. My sour relationship with Paul also affected my membership of the Urhobo Association of Michigan (UAM) as some in the organization who appeared to believe Paul’s rhetoric, branded me a troublemaker. Once it became clear to me that I had become a distraction, I relinquished my membership to pull myself out of the way for UAM to continue its activities as its members saw fit. It was also depressing to note that many of the pro-democracy groups including the two factions of UDFN and NiFoD collapsed supposedly in response to the transition from military to civilian rule in Nigeria. I understand Paul after the demise of these groups started to work with yet another group, this time, the Pro-National Conference Organization (PRONACO), an offshoot of the Movement for National Reformation (MNR), under the leadership of the late Chief Anthony Enahoro. The organization also faded away long before Chief Enahoro passed on in December of 2010.

My reaction to the breakdown of the pro-democracy movement that we worked so hard to build was one of paralysis. I was forced to reduce contact with other comrades in the movement and had hardly shown any interest in the affairs of Urhobo and those of other Nigerian organizations.  The state of affairs was probably as painful for Paul was it was for me. I was so tuned off that I had no idea of what was going on with Paul’s life let alone any knowledge of his problems including the divorce from his wife. Whenever we ran into each other, usually at some party, we moved into different directions and hardly spoke to each other. It would seem that I was not there for him when he needed me most. However I reconnected to him when I learned that he had an accident in which he suffered a head injury and memory loss. I visited him twice in the Detroit Receiving Hospital and again when he was moved into a nursing home on Detroit’s eastside. During the visits, I stayed away from discussing anything personal for fear that it might rekindle the bad feelings we once had for each other. Our conversations were more or less a review of the political crisis in Nigeria and the lack of leadership and unity among Urhobo people. He expressed his frustration with the pro-democracy movement and told me that he had decided to sever all connections with all Nigerian groups in the United States, including those of Urhobo. I shared with him some details of my involvement with Urhobo Historical Society and its projects. We discussed one of the Society’s pending projects, the Development of Urhobo Communities in the Diaspora. I urged him to do an essay on the experience of Urhobo people in Ghana, where he was born and where his nationalist father had worked as a cocoa farmer for many years.  

While one could fault Paul for his shortcomings, one would find it difficult to ignore his contributions to society. I owe much to him. During our involvement in the pro-democracy movement, we worked on many issues and in so doing I learnt how to do many things, including preparing draft constitution, communiqués, and other forms of materials such as pamphlets, brochures and programs for many of the events we hosted. At his urging, I bought my first computer and fax machine, when he made me to understand that such tools were necessary to facilitate communication with others in a pro-democracy movement. Besides his commitment to pro-democracy matters, I knew how hard he worked, preparing and grading materials for his students, in addition to fixing things in and around his home. He stayed up many nights, sometimes as late as 2:00 AM, working and talking on the phone, about pro-democracy activities or Urhobo conference issues. Yet Paul would still manage to wake up early enough to attend early morning classes that he taught at local community colleges. One could also regard Paul as a good entertainer. No one left his home, especially during the New Year Eve parties, without feeling happy after listening and dancing to music from a huge collection of tapes at his disposal. One understood then when he and Carol sent out invitations for the parties urging people to bring their dancing shoes. In short, Paul had a lot of experience and the oratory skills that many of us lacked. His training in the field of education, communications, drama and theatre became useful as he was able to apply the tools of technology to exploit radio and print media to the fullest advantage. Each time we received calls from the news media for an interview about our movement, we turned them over to Paul to handle.

One can therefore imagine how these years of long hours of work and inadequate sleep, coupled with drinking and smoking habits could take a toll on one’s health. One would also have to thank Carol for being magnanimous enough to allow him to move back home with the family when his health was failing. She has indicated that the last three years of Paul’s life were among the most peaceful for the family, as they found time to do things with their son without any form of argument or quarrel. One would also have to recognize the good nature of two of Paul’s friends from his MSU days, Dr. Kienuwa Obaseki and Dr. Ebi Burutolu. These gentlemen exemplified the best of qualities in friendship as they stayed with Paul to the very end. They traveled often over fifty miles one way, from their homes: Keniuwa in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Ebi in Taylor, Michigan, to come and pray with Paul at the nursing center in Pontiac. They were among the first to respond when the news of Paul’s passing broke. Another person who was with Paul in his last days is Patricia Daramola, nee-Ewetuya. Like Paul, Patricia’s parents are Okpe persons and even more than that Patricia’s mother and Paul’s mother hail from the same village, Adeje in Okpe-Urhobo. Patricia visited Uncle Paul almost daily either on her way to or from work and made sure he had clean clothes to put on. She often collected Paul’s dirty clothes to take home for washing and ironing before bringing them back to him. Incidentally, Patricia’s family and mine worship at the same church in Novi, Michigan and she was always gracious enough to find the time to brief me on Paul’s conditions every so often.

Although we lost Paul, his legacy continues and will endure. Paul’s life was all about community, justice, respect for peace and fairness, humanity and fighting for the good cause. One could say he demonstrated during his lifetime both the qualities and characteristics of a leader. Unfortunately, many of the socio-political problems Paul fought against are still with us. For example, in Nigeria and particularly in its section called Delta State of Nigeria where Paul and I hail from, people are still denied the right to elect their leaders in a free and fair election. Corrupt politicians who cannot perform nor work to earn the respect and trust of the people continue to impose themselves on others. The result of this neglect by politicians engaged in an unimaginable criminal enterprise has been devastating. The institutions, including the traditional system that Paul’s father had advocated for raising our young ones, have been destroyed. Now we have lost a generation of Urhobo youths to illiteracy and a life of crimes, and another one seems to be on the way. I seem to hear Paul calling on others to rise and seize control of our destiny from the gangsters that rule us, if nothing else, for the future of our children. As if he knew that the struggle for a decent life for our people would be a long haul, he taught many of us techniques for grassroots mobilization and getting messages out to the public. Paul’s heart lay with Urhobo and he had always wanted the best for his people. He, unlike many of us who are on voluntary exile from Nigeria, never took US citizenship. One can therefore understand why his family in Urhobo would need his body to come home for final funeral rites and interment among his ancestors. Unfortunately, Paul’s life insurance elapsed when he took ill and he did not leave any tangible assets that could be utilized to transfer his body home. It was left to a hurriedly put-together Committee of Friends consisting of Dr.  Ebi Burutolu and Dr. Keniuwa Obaseki, Paul’s long time friends from MSU days, along with Robert Okagbare, an associate and former President of Urhobo Association of Michigan and I to rise to the challenge. We organized a fund raising campaign in which we appealed to the public and all those who knew Paul for donations. The response was gratifying. We were able to raise enough money not only to move the body home but also to help with funeral expenses in his village of Egborode, Okpe-Urhobo in Delta State of Nigeria where he will be laid to rest. The generosity of all those who made the transfer possible is greatly appreciated. It is a testimony that people understood and appreciated Paul’s struggles and the legacy he left for society. I owe much to my friendship with him for which I remain grateful. I appreciate his belief and trust in my ability to work with him as comrades for the cause of peace and social justice. And in return, I wish his soul a perfect rest in peace. As the French would do, I say adieu (farewell); and as our people would in Urhobo, I add the parting words, akp k dfa (until we meet again in the next world).


%d bloggers like this: