Emma Ezeazu: The Lion Goes Home -By Adewale Adeoye

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Adewale Adeoye

Adewale Adeoye


Emma was unwavering. He would not compromise on principle. He knew no tribe. His tribe was justice and liberty.

Tragic. He was buried in Onitsha, the boisterous eastern city this past weekend. Like a bright candle in the dark, memories of mankind die slowly. I cannot recall all the events that shaped Emma’s glorious life and those striking moments we worked together at one of the world’s greatest citadels of learning. I choose to write this tribute, bearing in mind that the travails and triumphs of Emma were also a striking chapter in the history of the students’ movement in Nigeria. Like the dilemma of Africa and her search for epistemology, I belong, like our forebears, to a generation that hardly keeps written records, not to talk of visuals. But creation and the human subconscious offer an inestimable trillionbite that no artificial hard drive can ever equal.

As I sleep over the life and times of Emma Ezeazu in my apartment, soon after I heard of his death, my head on a pillow and watching a cobweb do a masterstroke on the ceiling, I let the mental picture of over two decades crawl back to mind. There and then, the image of a young lion in his state of nature, green, adventurous and bright, like a blistering comet sat at the Prince Alenzandra Auditorium, the desolate cocoon that hosted the department of Philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN). Somehow, there is a kind of bond between Emma and UNN that I do not understand. He made the university and the school also made him. UNN was established theoretically on May 18, 1955, when the Eastern Region passed a law to that effect. Emma died on May 18, 2015. UNN opened its doors for the first time on October 7, 1960. Again, the first event that shot Emma into early limelight took place in May 1986, after the murderous end of students of Ahmadu Bello University.

My encounter with Emma was first during the Marxist Youth Movement (MYM) meeting at the Auditorium. That was in 1985. The authorities of UNN had left the Auditorium deliberately in its state of discomfiture as a mark of dishonour to the Nigerian state, which rained bombs on the University during the civil war of 1967-70. The living enigma, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu had actually declared the state of Biafra right in the hall in 1967. Between July 6, 1967 and January 15, 1970, UNN was rechristened the University of Biafra. It was a show of blind, vicious anger and irrationality to rain bombs on the citadel of learning, yet without this, we would not have known the endless instinct of the Nigerian primordial state in its infinite capacity to do evil.

During the MYM meeting, the two lions, I and Emma (for those who attended other universities, we UNN students take delight in referring to ourselves as lions) met in this historic hall for a long chat on an imminent revolution that we felt was around the corner. Usually at such meetings were junior and senior university lecturers, like Dr. Uzodinma Nwala and Dr. Onwubiko, amongst others. Emma, like all of us, was in his early 20s, the decade of innocence when one was ready to take the highest forms of risk, in the comfort that such would not be in vain, since a socialist revolution would be made – a classless society, fashioned after the great empire of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, (USSR). There was an ideological link between the USSR and the left leaning students’ movement of the time. Books were supplied to us free from revolutionary movements across the world, from USSR and also China. It was a moment of great revolutionary zeal. Southern Africa was burning with rage against white supremacist rule. At UNN, Emma was one of the pioneers of the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa (YUSSAN). The MYM had a rich library filled with books on the revolutionary left.

1986 was a year of great pain and anguish, a year of the locusts. The despotic military was in power. Dissent was met with death or deadly witch-hunts. There were no civil society movements in Nigeria. Corruption was hardly questioned; no private radio or private TV stations. It tells of a society once in a state of primitivism. The military worked to sustain the state of darkness for primordial reasons. The only means of communication, apart from the media, was to travel by road or by bus. There were no cell phones. But three institutions stood out as bastion of resistance: the media, the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and the labour movement. The UNN left movement had its left organ, the Valley Echo in which Emma was a regular columnist, though it was usual not to use this name. The NANs leadership was guided like a virgin bride, and only members of the Progressive Youth Movement (PYM) and all Marxists could emerge as its president. At UNN, we had the Marxist Youth Movement, (MYM) of which Emma was the General Secretary. We had the Central Working Committee (CWC), similar to the highest organ of the Soviet Communist state, of which I was a member. To become the General Secretary was a tall task. Such a person would need to emerge through constructive argument for and endorsement of CWC members. But there were unwritten maxims: The person must be of the highest level of discipline, which sometimes involves not having a girlfriend on campus, not attending the “frivolous” Ofala festivals; s/he must be honest, hardworking and must give all his or her life to the struggle for the emancipation of students and the Nigerian working class. Emma was shoulder high above many. He was picked as the General Secretary. Soon, one of his immediate assignments was to contest for the post of the President of NANS.

The convention was slated for Kano. Emma and Jonas Awodi from Benue were nominated for President and Secretary. Awodi was a great boy of letters. Figuratively, he had the galloping gait of an antelope and the aggression of a just guerilla fighter. Unfortunately, he died a day after his marriage. This is not to undermine the fact that there were other contenders, like Comrade Emma Eke, from the same MYM. Eventually, Emma Ezeazu won the mandate to lead millions of Nigerian students at a very tender age. In that epoch, the position of the NANS President was more or less like an alternate president of the country. When NANS spoke, the country would freeze. It was a ruse to imagine NANS leadership collecting money or hobnobbing with politicians. It was a taboo to support the government of the day in any form, real or imagined. We were to look for the loopholes of the reactionary authorities and ‘smash’ them, and there were a million loopholes for a regime that came to power through the barrel of the gun.

Shortly before Emma emerged, UNN had been categorised as a school of hard nuts whose pastimes were in the library. Other students made jeering remarks about UNN students going to study even on Christmas day. Due to the trauma of the war, reactionary lecturers generally impress on the students not to join national protests, since UNN had been “earmarked for hate and authority resentment.” UNN after the war had recoiled like a wounded cobra. There were few students from outside the South-East in the school. For instance, Ondo State had only 201 students, out of a population of about 18,000 students. I could not remember seeing any student of Hausa-Fulani origin. Pierre Park, a Hausa from Bauchi state is a Christian. Getting to UNN, I realised that most of Nigeria suffered from the stereotype of Igbos being hostile to strangers. For many of us, we found a kind, loving and charming ethnicity that received visitors with open hands and rare love. I contested the race into the parliament against an all-Igbo opposition. I won. Wale Oyekanmi, a prince of Ijesa also contested and won. He became the first Yoruba Speaker of the Students Parliament. Emma and Chima Ubani played crucial role in the campaigns.

The renaissance of UNN as a radical post-war hemisphere was reinforced in 1984 when Olu Oguibe, Chris Uyot, Uzodinma Nwala, Femi Ahmed roused the students population to a series of progressive protests alongside other universities in the country. Oguibe was the storming petrel of the era. A physically diminutive but mental colossus of a fellow, Olu was a born orator and a mover of mountains. The MYM had a breeding ground nurtured by the small book, The Communist Manifesto and another small book with the impact of dynamite in the hearts of the students, The ABC of Historical and Dialectical Materialism. The book turns upside down conventional conservative thoughts and philosophies, making every conscientious reader into an instant radical.

The MYM of which Emma was the General Secretary played the leading role in producing reliable revolutionaries that continue to play important roles, even in today’s national and global affairs. Emma’s generation, led by comrades Chris Uyot, Gareth Ikekhua, Jonas Awodi, Lucas Udeagbala, Chris Nderibe, Chinonye Obiagwu, Eugene Onuoha, Dr Kennedy Ononaeke, (Enugu Campus), Jide Ojo, Joshua Ogadimma, Uche Okereke, Okey Ekeocha, Innocent Chukwuma, Chidi Omeje, Emma Eke, myself and others too numerous to mention strengthened the ideological content to the UNN tradition of radical students union politics. There were other non-Marxist student leaders who fueled the radicalism with their charm and charisma. Chido Nwangwu was one of them. He was the Student’s Union Pubic Relations Officer (PRO) and an ally of the left movement. Chido was an exceptionallly charming student who took away the left votes from our own Eugene Onuorah, despite his charm and a charisma, which constantly raised the eyebrows and stirred affection of the female students populace.

Special attention would be devoted here to Chima Ubani, a lean, constantly emaciated fellow whose stand for truth and justice has very few equals. Many of the MYM cadres led UNN into national revolutionary reckoning within the context of student’s union politics and its impact on the dynamics of the national political economy. Innocent Chukwuma, a tall, charming student with exceptional oratory skills became the Speaker of the Parliament. Okereke became the President of the Students Union. I recall that in 1986, the then NANS President, Lanre Arogundade (now coordinator of the International Press Centre, IPC) came to UNN to speak to the lions. We gathered at the school’s main freedom square. A young, smart-looking, ebony black revolutionary, Arogundade mounted the rostrum to address a boisterous, cheering crowd. After him, Olu (Orlu) Oguibe spoke. Then Femi Ahmed (Israel) spoke. John Odah spoke. Labaran Maku spoke, and then Emma spoke, throwing his fist up as if ready to pull down the country’s tower of repression. The whole place was aglow like a Christmas trees. That year, students of ABU were murdered. The ABU students were protesting against the draconian disciplinary measure against the leadership of the ABU students’ movement who were marking ‘Ali Must Go’, in reference to the 1978 police murder of Kunle Adepeju.

Emma, the great lion, sleep well, sleep well and even though there may be lack of proof, but with faith, let us believe that we can still meet again in the world beyond, where, hopefully, there would be no riots against an unjust and inhuman system which you fought here on earth and which also appear to have consumed you, the way millions of Nigerians fall victims daily.

Not too long after, Emma’s NANS presidency, on a national scale, had to respond to the killings and rape by “Kill and Go” police in ABU. It was Emma’s responsibility to mobilise the national resistance, travelling by decoy, day and night, from East to West, North to South, touching each campus with words of rebellion against a vicious, heartless military leadership. In 1987, UNN decided to mark the one year anniversary of the ABU massacre. We met all night, as usual, in secret locations on the campus. Emma wrote the motivating prose, asking UNN students to join the train in blood-bound support for students of ABU. Emma led one of the most successful and best organised students’ resistance movements in his era. The challenges at the UNN, coincidentally at that time, needed a revolutionary response. It was a period that students were preparing for their examinations. Emma lived up to expectation by providing the strategy and the students responded like a simmering wildfire. Yet, after the ABU solidarity rally, the homestead soon turned into a molten magma. At UNN, energy supply was becoming erratic, the septic tanks in some of the hostels were left unkempt, the fees were also hiked. The tradition was for the MYM to meet all night and come up with pamphlets to mobilise students, backed with visits from one department to the other, and the addressing of students while they read at the PRE-FAB. Visits were to be conducted to other Universities to brief them for support. I was to visit OAU, UI and UNILAG, where I met Biodun Owonikoko, Olumide Fusika, Yinka Odumakin, Muyiwa Adekoya, Sina Odugbemi and many others. The response was electrifying. Students took to the streets the second day; thousands of them. Police came in thousands and shot indiscriminately. We fought back with stones, with Emma providing the leadership, even as bullets flew by our side. An unwavering Emma was always in the fore front.

It was a dark, tough period. The Babangida regime, for the first time in the history of students’ unionism, had infiltrated the campuses, sponsoring armed cult groups. Before now, the cult groups were unarmed and in fact were largely progressive, which they showed, especially the Pyrates, through their open support for most students’ protests. The military organised students to be trained by the SSS in Enugu on how to use weapons. They were armed to disrupt students’ protests. In one instance at the Mbonu Ejike Hall, armed students, led by one Tony attacked the gathering where Emma, Chima and many of us were addressing the students. In the chaos, one of us in the MYM, Lanre Ehonwa was whisked away by the armed students in a white Peugeot wagon. Tony I later sighted in Lagos, years later, as a member of the State Security Service, (SSS) in the convoy of the Head of State. I was then the Defence Correspondent of the The African Guardian.

At UNN, in one other instance, Chidi Omeje was attacked by the state-sponsored armed students and had an eye broken. Another student, Kunu Harmony had his testicles battered. Suddenly, armed cult groups moved around the campuses, intimidating and hunting the leaders of the students movement. This was the atmosphere under which Emma had to lead the students and resist the sadistic state and its armed collaborators among the students population. It was at the moment when Dr. Patrick Wilmot was bundled out and repatriated from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in Zaria. It was a period of the lowest descent in national ethics: the military regime was to rationalise courses at universities in order to scrap the radical social sciences. The economy was in bad shape, but there was some sense of high societal values. From Lagos to Nsukka, we used to pay seven naira for transportation, but by mere standing on the highway, a university student with his or her ID card could get a free ride from Lagos to Maiduguri. Today, no one wants to take a free ride and no one wants to give a free ride. This is a sordid reflection of how communal trust has been broken through orchestrated anti-people economic policies.

A Professor of Chemistry, Chimere Ikoku was the Vice Chancellor. He emerged in 1985, after Professor Frank Nwachukwu Ndili who became the VC in 1980 had been eased out after a protracted but controversial Panel of Inquiry. After the riot, Prof Ikoku invited us to meet with him at the VC’s office. I was in the delegation with Emma. As we took our seats, one of the lecturers started speaking in Igbo. Emma told him if he spoke Igbo in a gathering where there was at least one non-Igbo student, then the meeting would not progress. The VC agreed with Emma. The meeting ended in a deadlock. There was no calling off the students’ protest. The result was that the school was closed down and Emma and other comrades were declared wanted. At resumption, nine students were suspended. The General Ibrahim Babangida regime constituted the first military tribunal to try nine students of UNN, with Emma listed as the ring leader. The students were detained at the Nsukka prisons. The venue of the trial was Enugu, with Mr. Femi Falana, Alao Aka Bashorun and Gani Fawehinmi standing in for the students. The radical lawyers met with us and told us the strategy was that we should disrupt the tribunal and prevent it from sitting.

While underground, Emma was able to communicate with all the school campuses, many of which he visited. Twice, the tribunal tried to sit in Enugu but failed, owing to the leadership Emma provided and the unbelievable mass resistance that trailed the tribunal. Before the sitting, Falana had told us in Enugu, where he held a secret meeting with us: “I’m a revolutionary lawyer. I don’t support violence. I think our job is easier if the tribunal can’t find seats in Enugu.” We latched unto that but interpreted it in view of our interests. In any case, we could imagine what Falana would have done as a student if he and his group were to be tried by a tribunal. It was one of the most successful uprisings in the history of student’s movement in Nigeria. An estimated 5000 students, backed by local population, drivers, artisans, have-nots stormed the venue of the tribunal and prevented the sitting of the junta’s agents. Some of the students marched on foot from Nsukka to Enugu. Days before, we in the Association of Progressive Students (APS), after the MYM had been proscribed, had carved a beautiful piece, flavoured with a passionate appeal to the history of the Igbo and the need for the people to join the mass protest. The response was thrilling.

In March 1988, IBB ordered the closure of ABU and UNN. In July 1989, five universities were shut down due to the fallout of another Jos riot over the three percent increase in the price of gasoline. The riots forced IBB to cancel his official trip to France. The riots were national. In Benin, led by Ogaga Ofowodo, Luke Aghahenu, Jiti Ogunye and a host of others, town folks joined in the protests. The riots got out of hand in Benin as locals torched the city’s prisons, from where 600 inmates escaped. This campaign extended till March 1990 when Babangida closed down six universities. IBB backed up the campaign of terror through the promulgation of Decree 47 which prescribed a five-year term and, or 50,000 naira fine for any student found guilty of participating in student’s protests. 50,000 naira then was equivalent of the amount needed to buy five new Peugeot cars. IBB set up tribunals to try offenders. While IBB made his iron-cast decrees, the students movement defied his laws with a will cast in even stronger iron. Oh Emma: you didn’t bend your back and the teeming followers of students and workers will never forget how you proved that the human will is far stronger than any military arsenal!

Emma was unwavering. He would not compromise on principle. He knew no tribe. His tribe was justice and liberty. After his foray at the UNN, Emma joined the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) as one of the pioneer staff. We, once again, had the opportunity to work together. He was one of the solid pillars of the CLO. When the country was again at a cross road in 1993, during the June 12 election annulment, Emma’s calling was to lead Nigerians as a core member of the Campaign for Democracy (CD). He was one of the fighting spirits, alongside myself, Ogaga Ifowodo, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti and his daughter, Morenike Ransome-Kuti, Lanre Arogundade, Innocent Chukwuma, Femi Falana, Jiti Ogunye, Debo Adeniran, Comrade Ola Oni, Joe Okei-Odumakin, Sina Loremikan, Segun Jegede, Rotimi Obadofin, Osagie Obayuwana, Chris Nderibe, Femi Obayori among many others, on the streets, in the boulevards, in villages and towns across Nigeria.

The mutual disagreement with the leadership of the CD led him and others like Bamidele Aturu, myself, Chima Ubani to establish the Democratic Alternative (DA). One of the initial meetings of the DA was held in Zaria. While in Abuja, Emma’s routine was a reflection of his past, a life borne out of the desire for freedom and an egalitarian society. He passed on with the torch of liberty in his hand and the images of freedom etched on his face. Emma, the great lion, sleep well, sleep well and even though there may be lack of proof, but with faith, let us believe that we can still meet again in the world beyond, where, hopefully, there would be no riots against an unjust and inhuman system which you fought here on earth and which also appear to have consumed you, the way millions of Nigerians fall victims daily. Ironically, Emma, Professor Chimere Ikoku, who was the VC during that turbulent era was also consumed by the system he was protecting, having been murdered on a Sunday by a little street criminal, indicating that a vicious system is a threat to the oppressed and even to the oppressors. Emma, have a long lasting sleep.

Adeoye, a journalist, was a member of the University of Nigeria, Nusukka (UNN) Students’ Union Parliament (1986-87).