Nigeria Matters

Jerome Oputa Udoji: The Exit of a Titan

He was perhaps best known for the ‘Udoji Award’ of the mid 1970s, when many public servants received huge salary increases and were also paid lump sums in arrears, following a lopsided implementation of the recommendations of the Public Service Review Commission set up by the Federal Government in 1972, which he chaired. Jerome Udoji’s date of birth was not recorded. What was however certain was that he started formal education in 1917. Udoji thought that because the missionaries took early interest in him, that he must have started school as young as three. His children estimated that he was born in 1912. My own estimate is that he was probably born in 1910.

Udoji commanded respect both nationally and internationally as an honest, disciplined and intellectually alert public administrator and private sector operator. In our town, Ozubulu in Ekwusigo Local Government Area, he was virtually deified as an influential wise patriarch whose counsel or intervention was constantly sought by both the lowly and the mighty on virtually any issue under the sun. He abhorred all forms of exhibitionism and would sternly discourage such from any one close to him.

It was an honour for me, when in 1987, Udoji formally engaged me as research assistant in the preparation of his memoirs, Under Three Masters (1995, Ibadan, Spectrum). Though I left the country for further studies the following year, I continued to be involved with the memoirs, including reading and commenting on several of the drafts. We got along so well that he gave me an unfettered access to his speeches and correspondences. I was later to select, arrange, edit and publish some of these as, Which Way Nigeria?: Selected Speeches of Chief J.O. Udoji (2000, Ibadan, Spectrum).

Udoji trained as a teacher at St Charles Teacher Training College, Onitsha, graduating in the late 1920s. He later moved to the West where he first taught at Ibadan Grammar School before moving to Abeokuta Grammar School between 1940 and1941. At that time, the respected Reverend I.O. Ransome Kuti, (Fela’s father), was the principal of the school. While at Abeokuta and as part of his contribution to the war effort, Udoji joined the Abeokuta Special Constables and quickly rose to be the commander. This was to be a turning point in his career because the European Superintendent of Police at Abeokuta at that time, after watching one of his parades, took special interest in him and eventually convinced him to leave teaching for the colonial civil service. In 1944, Udoji left for further studies in England, graduating in Law from Cambridge University in 1948. He left Nigeria in the same ship as Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

On his return from England, Udoji joined the Colonial Administrative Service and rose to become, in 1959, the Chief Secretary to the Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr Michael Okpara, as well as Head of the Region’s civil service, and Secretary to the Executive Council. He remained in that position until the coup of 1966.

When Ojukwu was appointed administrator of the Eastern Region following the coup, Udoji felt so hounded that he had to resign his appointment. At the outbreak of the civil war, Udoji felt shadowed by the Ojukwu regime and escaped, eventually taking up job in Kenya as a Consultant to the Ford Foundation on Public Administration. He remained in that position until he was appointed Chairman of the Public Service Review Commission by the Gowon regime in 1972.

Knowing how disappointed Udoji was at the way he felt Ojukwu had mistreated him, from about 2002, I began moves to publicly reconcile the two. I had met Ikemba in 1988 at the Enugu home of the social critic and publisher, Chief Arthur Nwankwo. At that time Babangida was dribbling the political class with the promise of an impending transition to civilian rule and Ikemba was toying with the idea of starting a party he called the Populist Party of Nigeria. I was later sent by Ikemba and Chief Nwankwo, along with two others, (Comrade Kalu and Dr Dike) to ‘represent the Igbos’ at the first anniversary of Awolowo’s death in 1988. We were asked to make discreet contacts with prominent Awoists to start the process of a ‘handshake across the Niger.’ I didn’t want Udoji, a man I adored, to continue to carry that bitter disappointment with Ikemba, whom I also respected. I considered it an honour that I was able to persuade Udoji on the need for public reconciliation with Ikemba, though our plan was eventually torpedoed by ill health.

After his chairmanship of the Public Service Review Commission, Udoji became active in the private sector. He was at a time Chairman of the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria and President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. In fact, between 1974 and 1993, he was either the chairman or on the board of at least 13 major corporations, including the Nigerian Tobacco Company, RT Briscoe, Michellin and Nigerian International Bank. Udoji was the first Nigerian to be appointed Chairman of a multinational corporation in Nigeria and his success in that position opened the way to other Nigerians: Christopher Abebe in UAC, Michael Omolayole in Lever Brothers, Gamaliel Onosode in Cadbury and Jamodu in PZ.
A deeply religious and energetic man with strong convictions, Udoji abhorred injustice in any form and would not hesitate to get involved if he felt a ‘voiceless’ person was being maltreated. He rested in the Lord on April 2, 2010 and will be buried on Friday, May 214 The vacuum he left will be difficult to fill, especially in our town, Ozubulu.

Madam Angelina Nwokolo, 1910-2010

For as long as I have known her, she was simply ‘Mama Nnukwu’ (Grandma). I lived with her eldest son, Sunday, and his family, while a primary school pupil at Onitsha in the 1970s. She treated me like one of her grandchildren and I would often spend holidays with her sons, in turns.

Mama Nnukwu was a conflict-avoiding, unassuming and generous woman. Though she had been wheel chair-bound for some years, her faculties never deserted her. When I visited in April 2009, she had no difficulty recognising me. I had joked that I visited because I was missing her famous bitter leaf soup. She laughed, and called one of her daughters to bring out the necessary condiments for her to prepare the soup for me. I spoke with her again on the phone about two weeks before her transition. She sounded strong, and asked when I planned to return again. Mama Nnukwu transited to the Lord on April 10, 2010 and would be buried on May 14, 2010. She will be greatly missed.

‘Babangida, Federalism and 2011’

I regret that the above article (published by the Daily Independent, The Guardian and several websites), gave an erroneous impression that I was promoting Babangida’s purported presidential ambition. That was not the intention of the article at all. My style has always been to acknowledge someone’s strengths before disagreeing with the person, or to point out a person’s weaknesses before eulogising him/her. In the Babangida article, I started by acknowledging his skills in networking across the country’s main fault lines before arguing that even this key personal attribute would hinder rather than facilitate the pursuit of his stated goal of restructuring the country for true federalism. I regret any wrong impression created by the article.

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