Robinson Tombari Sibe
Every Nigerian who is perhaps, more than 35 years, knows the chart-topping song by Peterside Ottong: ‘Where are the Prophets’. This song was a personal lamentation by Peterside, and it reverberated through the nation. Today is Ogoni day, and as I thought about what to write like I always do, this song crept to mind. Ogoni, where are thy Prophets? This is my lamentation!
The Ogonis are a distinct stock; quite distinct from their neighbors in culture and linguistics. Therefore, the first task for the Ogonis, who archaeology suggests to be amongst the earliest settlers of the Niger Delta, was self-preservation. They are people with a huge sense of pride in their distinct origin, history, and culture. They cherished their distinct roots and guarded their culture and heritage fiercely. Therefore, for centuries, the Ogonis were known for preservation and unifying strategies, despite sharing individual differences. When it came to issues that concerned the whole, they jettisoned selfish tendencies.
It was this thinking that ensured our forebears engendered a culture of meritocracy. It was such a culture of excellence that brought a generation that formed the core of some of the most brilliant men in the old Rivers State. It was this thinking that led the sage, late T.N. Paul-Birabi, to lead the light to Ogoni villages in search of the best. As the first graduate in Ogoni, the Mathematics graduate of the University of Southampton knew the importance of education, and how it can propel the Ogoni to greater heights. He started a secondary school, which was later known as Birabi Memorial Grammar School (BMGS); the last duty post of my late father as Principal. The second stanza of the Ogoni anthem charges Ogonis to study. It is an intellectual battle cry, urging our youth to study and equip themselves, so our interest as a people is not undermined by others. The foundation of this was laid by the late sage.
Ogonis of old had the spirit of excellence. They excelled anywhere they found themselves. When Kemte Giadom left for the USA in the ’40s, not many would have fancied the chances of the then young Ogoni son. He would later graduate as the first Rivers man with a Bachelors’s degree from the USA. He did not wallow in complain or allow his minority status to weigh him down. In fact, the resilience and bravery of the Ogoni spirit fired him on. In 1949, he contested and won the President of the African Students Union of the Southern States in the USA. He was also the President of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity of the Bethune Cookman College. He, alongside the great Harold Dappa Biriye, testified before the Willinks commission, highlighting the plight of the minority.
As the Committee Chairman for Science and Technology in the National Assembly, he worked on the bill that would later establish the Ministry of Science and Technology. This was a man of vision. He also founded one of the best girls secondary school in old Rivers State, Bodo City Girls Secondary School; where he served as the Pioneer Principal, while also serving as a part-time legislator in the Eastern House of Representatives. This was the kind of leader Ogoni had.
Ogonis were not in short supply of bravery. Our forebears were not mediocre. They were warriors; brave and intelligent. They were strategists who could surmount any challenge, through creative thinking and perseverance. For years, the Europeans could not settle in Ogoni, because at the time, our forefathers saw through the sophistry of the freebies they dangled. They were not swayed by the promise of cannons or mirrors that fascinated others. The Ogonis had their established defense mechanisms and were not intimidated by cannons. They could summon the elements at the slightest notice, and defend themselves if need be. There was food security in Ogoniland, and so where not in a hurry to trade-off their freedom for some freebies. They issued trade embargoes and protectionist policies that prevented trade deals with the Europeans until they were sure their motive was not to undermine their interest as a people. This policy was only relaxed in exchange for an education.
The Ogonis of old were bold, brave and unputdownable. We never lacked examples in bravery. Chief E.N. Kobani in the early ’50s rose to become Secretary of the Student Union in University College, Ibadan. This was not an easy feat for a minority student from faraway Ogoni in Ibadan. This was also the era of very intelligent, vocal and conscious students at the University College Ibadan, such as Prof. Wole Soyinka. He later rose to become the national secretary of the National Union of Nigerian Students, where he led the famous protest against the Anglo-Nigerian defense pact. This protest earned him an arrest, for which over 70 lawyers volunteered to defend him and his colleagues. He didn’t resign to fate and complain about being a minority. He activated the majority spirit in his minority grouping. This was the kind of brave men we had in Ogoni.
We had all shades of leadership in Ogoni. We also had those who achieved so much, rather quietly. Top of the list is the model gentleman, late Albert Tombari Badey. He was arguably one of the most distinguished civil servants Rivers State ever had. He rose through the ranks to become Permanent Secretaries in 7 different ministries, served as sole administrator of the Port Harcourt (Now PHALGA and OBALGA) municipality at some point, served as the Chairman of the tenders board that oversaw some of the infrastructural landmarks in Rivers State (Point Block, Podium Block, Civic, Centre, etc), Chairman Rivers State Civil Service Commission, Commissioner Ministry of Information and culture, and served as Secretary to the Government of Rivers State under three different Military Governors. He achieved all these, without being noisy and boisterous. That was my model Ogoni leader. Sadly, nothing is named after this illustrious son in Rivers State.
I need not re-echo Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy. He was phenomenal and outstanding. Brilliant, fearless and visionary. Commissioner in his 20’s, Columnist, Author, Playwright, Environmental Activist, Publisher, Businessman, etc. His story is up there! Truth is, the Ogoni man of old would shine anywhere he found himself. Late A.T. Badey had the best Higher School Certificate result (Arts Category) in the entire country. Garrick Leton’s scientific innovation for the Biafran army is still a subject that should provoke intellectual discussion on how the Nigerian state threw away the baby with the bathwater – post-war. In the heat of the Biafran war, late I.S. Kogbara coordinated the diplomatic activities of Biafra in London, Irelands, and Netherlands. This was a tough job, considering Britain’s position in the war. We once had men who were equipped for a tough job. Rising through complex and condensed deprivation, these men shone through with such remarkable brilliance.
And today? Oh, come on! We are everywhere, but no-where. We are on all the radio stations, newsrooms, but not in the strategy room. We are all over the place. Our children are at the risk of being raised without worthy role models. Everyone is carrying a briefcase and registering adhoc businesses, fixated on “clean-up”, oil blocks, while “Rome is burning”.
As we mark another Ogoni Day, I ask again, “Where are the Prophets”? We remember the Prophets…
May this Ogoni day, spark a new awakening…