A Tribute to Omafume Onoge

Urhobo Historical Society

A Tribute to Omafume Onoge
By Eghosa Osaghae

Vice-Chancellor, Igbenedion University, Okada, Benin City, Nigeria

July 27, 2009

THE academia has interesting ways of celebrating its heroes and heroines. At the level of professors, lecturers and other researchers, outstanding research engagements and output (publications, inventions, patents) place deserving colleagues topmost in praise, respect and reputation. That is the stuff of which “authorities” are made. At the level of students, the criteria are similar, but in addition, impressions and popular reputation especially of love of students, mentorship, brilliance, constructive non-conformity or otherness and lexical wizardry, are equally important. Lecturers who fire the imagination through progressive ideological commitments (in the Cold War days this meant commitment to Marxism and Socialism) and “ism” activism in lecture rooms, symposia or at public events also become campus celebrities.

At the University of Ibadan where I first encountered Professor Omafume Onoge as an undergraduate student in the Faculty of the Social Sciences in 1976, he towered high at both levels. Along with the late Comrade Ola Oni and late Comrade Professor Bade Onimode, Comrade Professor Onoge was the quintessential Marxist. While Ola Oni’s quiet mien and Onimode’s suavity made them unlikely Marxists, Onoge had the revolutionary presence in the long beards he kept, his intimidating size (he was all of a big seven feet!) and the khaki fatigues he constantly adorned. In those exciting days of the Marxist-Socialist Movement, Oni, Onimode and Onoge were the (student) heroes at Ibadan, a constructive otherness for which they were punished by the neo-imperialist forces that ruled the state when the Ali-must-go struggle provided an opportunity.

They were promptly sacked without trial and, as was typical of the rigmarole of military governance at the time, recalled afterwards. But while Oni and Onimode returned to UI, Onoge relocated to Jos where his progressivism along with that of the late Professor Aaron Gana guided generations of students through the rudiments and mastery of critical engagement. And to catalogue that all these bright and progressive minds – Oni first, Onimode next, then Gana and now Onoge – are all gone. What a catalogue this is!

Back to Ibadan where the Onoge school of disciples grew. Onoge was the sociologist who gave literature, especially African literature the paradigm of social reform. A sociologist in literature? For undergraduate students yet to cut their teeth, that was double honours. But what made Onoge very popular was the gist in town that he not only attended Harvard University, but wrote the best PhD thesis that Ivy-league University had ever seen! It was no surprise therefore that every student wanted to be taught by Onoge. Even those who were not registered for his courses were happy to ‘audit’ his classes. And Onoge did not disappoint. He knew the subjects he taught and was such a brilliant teacher. His classes were captivating and transformatory in the short and long terms. His oratory, eloquence, and clarity were can’t beat. I cannot tell how many of us became academics just because we wanted to be like Onoge, but I am sure the number cannot be small.

I came to know Professor Onoge more closely from the late 1980s. It all began at the 1988 Nigerian Political Science Association conference in Ibadan on social mobilization a la MAMSER, which seemed to offer the progressive front an opportunity to make things happen in our country. Onoge took the opportunity seriously and was even involved in the frameworking of MAMSER. As rapporteur for the special roundtable on MAMSER, it was my responsibility to capture the debates and conclusions. As I played back the tapes of the day’s proceedings, I was forced to wake my wife up from sleep very late at night to listen to the brilliant contributions of the genius of a man I had long told her about. The part of the proceedings that caught our attention was the point where he protested the attribution of what sounded like praise to the military government for the social mobilisation programme to him. “I have not reached the age of senility to call black white and white black”, he protested.

This became a reference point for future lighter mood discussions I had with Prof. (and he enjoyed lighter moods!!), and I am glad to make a point of the fact that he remained cerebral and deep till the very end. In 1992, we worked together in the task team that formulated Nigeria’s contribution to the establishment of the then Organisation of African Unity’s Division of Conflict Resolution and establishment of the Institute for Peace in Nigeria. Once again, he was at his critical and constructive best, disagreeing without disrespect and agreeing without the arrogance of a winner. The next time we met, he had just lost his dear wife who, by the way, was with him at the task team meetings. Elegant woman, Onoge loved her very much and she loved him in return. Her death shook him greatly, but he still managed to carry through with his trademark postulations and Comradely banters.

In retirement, Professor Onoge returned to his native Urhoboland. He could have chosen to move to Abuja or Accra as is now the vogue, or even exit the country to “enjoy life” in Europe or North America. But Onoge would have none of these, as even in the worst of times he refused to get on the brain drain bandwagon. He always felt ‘home’ was the legitimate place of struggle. And there could have been no greater home than Warri and environs where he was brought up as the boy Friday next door. He returned at the momentous period of the Niger Delta struggles which he quickly joined, not as consultant, ethnic bigot, opportunist or predator, but as a nationalist truly committed to finding lasting solutions to the chronic problems. In this search, Onoge was ready to join forces with government and other stakeholders, demonstrating once again that non-governmental actors need always distrust government as not to give them the benefit of engagement (I am persuaded that government needs help all the time whatever its arrogant managers may say!), and that revolution is only a necessary but not sufficient condition for transformation. Thus, he represented Delta State at the National Political Reform Conference and served on the Niger Delta Technical Committee. The federal government can continue to drag its feet on the report of the technical committee, but Onoge and others are vindicated that they at least gave the government a chance to benefit from their intellect.

Professor Omafume Onoge painfully died far away in India at the age of 71. The story of the health pilgrimages to India is better left for another day. On a visit to that country earlier in the year, I got to know that thousands of Nigerians were in various Indian hospitals not because the country is beautiful, which it is, but because the hospitals offer affordable world class and reliable healthcare services. Regrettably, Nigeria which Onoge loved so much failed him in death. It is not as if people do not die in Nigeria; it is more about how and why they die. The right to life will be meaningless if adequate healthcare is not assured. I hope Onoge found a place in his heart to forgive us. Adieu teacher, mentor, comrade and friend.

  • Osaghae is Professor of Comparative Politics and Vice Chancellor, Igbinedion University. Okada.


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