By a twist of events, I didn’t get to hear of the passing of erudite Professor of English Benedict Ebele Obumselu until about a week after. Given my routine of resuming daily activities after morning prayers with monitoring major news events of the day, I was thrown into a big puzzle as to how such a major news event could have escaped me. Is it possible for such an astounding intellectual and man of many parts to have passed on without attracting media attention?
Could it be that his contributions both as an academic and literary icon, and his place in history, are not fully appreciated? Or did it not occur to someone in the family or very close to them to issue a statement announcing the death of a man who left indelible footprints in the literary field? For a country that celebrates people who managed to ascend high political offices even when they have nothing to show for it, could it be part of the collective anomie of elevating materialism and the ephemeral to the detriment of value and more enduring virtues of life? Those were some of the questions that agitated my mind on realising that Prof. Obumselu’s exit did not get the deserved media mention it ought to.
I came into contact with him in 1984. Then, I had just been engaged as Staff Writer at the then Satellite Newspapers, Enugu, owned by former Anambra State governor Jim Nwobodo. Obumselu presided over the editorial board meetings of that newspaper as a visiting Chairman. Though I had worked in two provincial newspapers before then, it happened to be the first time I was working in a well-organised national daily whose editorial board followed the pattern of what obtains today.
I recall very vividly how he usually drew my attention to the corrections he made on my scripts. I recall the very personable way he mentored us in the art of editorial writing and the very tremendous impact he had in improving my writing skills. Unfortunately, the period was short as he was later to take up appointment at the Imo state University.
I was later to take up another job with the Statesman, a newspaper owned by the Imo State government. While I was at the Statesman, he sent for me for some discussions as he was living in Owerri then. He told me of plans by some well-heeled people from the eastern part of the country to set up a national newspaper to be based in Lagos. We held several meetings on this idea and compiled names of prospective editorial staff.
Somewhere along the line, we started hearing stories that another financier was about to go it alone. Soon, news went round that a business tycoon and philanthropist, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, was about to set up a national newspaper in Lagos. And this was immediately followed up with advertisements for various editorial positions.
Those of us desirous of moving over to Lagos, the centre of journalism practice, to face more challenges saw that as a good opportunity, given the preference accorded journalists from there over and above those of us that work in state- owned media houses. I was engaged as pioneer political editor of the Champion group in September1988 and the paper hit the newsstands a month after in October 1of the same year.
Prof. Obumselu moved over to Lagos to consummate the newspaper we were working on prior to my taking up appointment with the Champion group. The company, the Torch publishing, acquired an office at Esmo Close in the highbrow Ikeja area, brought in modern printing press. The whole idea was to go national. But for some reason, this idea could not come to fruition. They had to go into commercial printing with some of the national dailies running to them in times of difficulty.
While in the Torch, I maintained regular contact with him and assisted him in sourcing some of the staff that worked with him. I often visited his residence in the Ikeja area to share ideas. And visits to his flat said a lot about the simple life he lived. In one of such visits, I came into contact with the late environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. I recall their discussions on literary matters as Ken kept making references to one of his books, On a darkling plain; and the advice Obumselu gave when Ken started passionate discussions on the plight of the Niger Delta people. It did not take long after that episode before Ken ran into the trouble that led to his unfortunate death. During the time Ken was passing through that difficulty, all that kept coming to my mind was the encounter of that very day.
Obumselu was a friend to many people, especially the young and upcoming who he encouraged and mentored through his simplicity and modest ways of life, his intimidating credentials notwithstanding. I count myself as one of those greatly influenced by his philosophy of life and for that I owe him a lot of gratitude.
A great scholar and literary guru, Obumselu attended the famous Dennis Memorial Grammar School (DMGS) Onitsha before proceeding to the University of Ibadan. At the University of Ibadan, he became the president of the Students’ Union from which position he eventually emerged as the first president of the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, which today is known as NANS.
As a student union activist, he was reputed to have laid the grounds for issue-oriented activism. On graduation, he took up appointment as an Assistant Registrar with the West African Examinations Council in Accra, Ghana. It was from there that he proceeded to the Oxford University and obtained a doctorate in English in 1958.
On his return to Nigeria, he was appointed into the faculty of English of the University of Ibadan, thus marking him out as the first black and African to teach in the faculty of English of Nigeria’s premier university. He was there until the outbreak of the civil war. He was very active during the war, working variously as special adviser to Ojukwu on war documentation, official war historian and recorder.
At the end of the war, he settled to teach at the University of Nigeria. Obumselu was a key member of the Ohaneze Ndigbo which he served as both its Secretary-General and Deputy Chairman.
A scholar of high repute, he was easily regarded as one of the major literary critics in Africa because of his philosophical, cerebral and oracular powers. He was a confidant of the late Christopher Okigbo and reputed to have had tremendous influence on the production of some of his poems. With his death, Nigeria has lost one of its best minds. Adieu Benedict Ebele Obumselu.
credit: the nation
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