I have always heard people say that “the good die young”, but never really bothered to give it a thought. Maybe being a young person, I feel that one should not be slowed down by the fear of death. However, the death of two very close young people is beginning to make me think, that maybe after all the good die young.
The first was my immediate younger brother Obinna who was full of life and laughter. Unfortunately, he was gruesomely murdered in a ghastly accident and the cause is traceable to government contractors and public officers that left Enugu-Portharcourt expressway a death trap after making away with several billions of supposedly public funds. Then last week, Ogbonna Ike, my friend of almost two decades who slept and did not wake to see the next day while in service of the Government of Enugu state as Honourable Commissioner for Lands.
My brother’s death I have learnt to live with though our family friends and neighbours still mourn him. He was the cheerful face of the house for them while all the others (including me) are branded too serious looking and unwelcoming. But the loss of “Buwee” as we fondly called Ogbonna Ike will be surely difficult for me to cope with. While I grieve for my friend whose dreams and plans were abruptly truncated, my biggest burden has been how to console Uloma, his wife and soul mate.
I became friends with Ogbonna not by chance but for the common background we shared. His father Late Ignatius Ogbodo Ike was a Chartered Accountant and served in the old Anambra state where he retired as Permanent Secretary and my father also a Chartered accountant worked under Late Ike at the Ministry of Finance where he later retired as Accountant General. We were both children of civil servant chartered accountants that served government with all their energies but only have their impeccable record (and of course us) to show for it. By the accident of birth we were both expected to be accounting whiz kids since it was already in the gene. But more than what people expected, we often imagined with mischief, that our lives could have had more luxury if our fathers worked in private practice or the corporate world given the hot demand for chartered accountants in the late sixties and early seventies.
We became friends by this common faith and had tremendous respect for each other not minding our individual idiosyncrasies. Some of the things we shared are not for the pages of the newspaper but I remember that at a time some of our classmates started feeling like stars because we were young and a bit nonchalant about grades and we both plotted and dislodged them from the top tier of the class. We studied together and shared our challenges; the result was obvious in our last two years at University of Nigeria. They were his best academically and mine too.
After school he went to serve in Jigawa while a couple of us came to Lagos and joined the corporate world. Being bright and determined, he arrived Lagos after youth service and soon got a place at Price Waterhouse, the top accounting firm that also offered me the first full time employment after youth service. The urge to quickly do my qualifying examination and proceed to graduate school made me to stay back at Fidelity where I did my youth service.Unlike me, Ogbonna was a patient person and willing to abide by the reputable firm’s rule of allowing only one professional examination yearly for Trainee Accountants. His patience was rewarded with adequate preparation and an ICAN prize in the PE 1 examination.
We were then in our early twenties and trying to chart a professional career in Babangida’s and later Abacha’s Nigeria. Though we desired to be in top graduate business schools abroad, the commonwealth ban on Nigeria and our civil service background put paid to such expensive projects. We exchanged frequent weekend visits and kept in close contact. I was either at his Majaro Street, Yaba abode or he came over to my place at Ikeja.
He was a very serious person and a practicing catholic, a faith we both profess. So it was not surprising to me when he came over to lunch at our office one afternoon and informed me that he was joining the Opus Dei. I was worried and afraid of losing a friend who may perceive me as less righteous for association, but Ogbonna was not the type. He ensured that I was invited to all open functions of the order, from the Pat Utomi lectures at the Centre in Yaba to the annual commemoration mass in honour of the founder Jose Maria Escrivia. I owe him the gratitude of taking me to my first Christian retreat at Iroto, Ogun State, which I found spiritually rewarding. He worked tirelessly to remind his friends about God and the good work. He never left us to the usual sin of the young and upwardly mobile. Between about five of us there was a special kind of friendship, which for some had it roots from primary school days and continued through our professional lives.
Ogbonna was the peacemaker at turbulent times in our friendship. I recall a particular case when one of us made a personal decision that brought emotional pain to another person in our group and we took sides but Ogbonna continued to calm all the parties. He came across quite frankly with his friends in a joking manner, meant to soothe the hard truth that always came from him. He could be quite critical but his good intentions were never in doubt.
Ogbonna believed in the good work i.e. service to humanity through doing your work well. Buwee was very strong willed and anyone that has been around him would attest to that. He was a knowledge man and loved books. Most times he read my books even before I had the time to look at them. We shared common interest in African renaissance and development. His insatiable appetite for knowledge was such that despite his hectic schedule he was working on his Doctorate thesis at a university in South Africa.
We often joked about the public service blood in us, which we abandoned for the lure of the corporate world. When the unsolicited invitation to serve as a Commissioner in Enugu State came he took me into confidence, and we reviewed it in-depth. It was an opportunity for him to serve, so, the murky waters of politics could not scare him. I was worried for him because he was too innocent to navigate the shark-infested water of politics. However we ended up agreeing that we cannot continue to sit out and complain. He moved down to Enugu and was given the poverty alleviation portfolio. I am sure that he contributed immensely to the good record the state government has with various donor agencies. I remember how happily he talked about the one meal a day programme for school children partly sponsored by DFID. He was passionate about poverty reduction and private sector driven wealth creation and was well grounded in Business strategy having passed through PriceWaterhouseCoopers and lectured at Nigeria’s Ivy League business school, the Lagos Business School.
While serving in Enugu he got married to a top banker (Uloma). I was so happy for him given that Uloma was a perfect complement for the Ogbonna that I knew. In her was this jovial person that could bring out the deep man in Ogbonna. They became soul mates.
He was subsequently moved to the Ministry of Lands to sanitize a ministry that played host to four Commissioners in five years. I recall the passion with which he talked about the re-certification of the Certificate of Occupancy to make Enugu land easily tradable and less controversial. This, he believed, will make land in Enugu attractive as an investment option and enhance government revenue. He often reminded me that Enugu was the fourth most vibrant property market after Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. He wanted to make it easier for people to transact with proper titles. Already he streamlined operations and reduced drastically the period of time it took to get consent on commercial transactions that involved land. He pursued the private sector involvement in housing development with a single-minded determination and admired the guts of Nasir El Rufai as regards putting things right.
Ogbonna had zero tolerance for corruption, which is institutionalized in every land ministry in Nigeria. I remember in one of my visits to Enugu to see my parents, we discussed into the night on his experience and the kind of leadership that will emerge from our generation that was raised in a chequered period of Nigeria’s history, bedeviled by military rule, corruption, advance fee fraud, tribalism, drug trafficking and mediocrity. Those were the things that occupied his mind.
The last time I saw Ogbonna was late November 2005 before joining my family for the Christmas. During the visit, we discussed about private sector led property development in Enugu, and Ogbonna’s concern was mostly for civil servants who would not be able to service even 25-year mortgages given their meager salaries. How to provide housing for the poorest of us was priority for him because he believed that the rich had the resources to acquire property at any going market value. He was brainstorming on how to use the interventionist role of government to ensure that the poor were not shut out from home ownership, by providing land and controlling the price at which developers will sell the houses. He was also concerned about providing mortgages and carried poverty alleviation like a burden.
I once asked him his biggest challenge in government; and his response was that “the negative intrigues limit ability to move faster with programmes” and as such that he wished the intrigues could be minimized.
Ogbonna died in his sleep three days after his re-certification project was advertised in various national newspapers. He was thirty-five years old and had no known medical condition that could necessitate such an untimely and sudden exit. I have lost a very true friend; one who provided me the mirror to look at myself. Maybe our society does not really deserve people like Buwee. He was just too bright, too strong willed, too caring, too hardworking, too incorruptible, too selfless, too idealist and just too good to be true. To Uloma, his mother, brothers, sisters and Frank Nneji, his brother-in-law who he served on the board of his company ABC Transport as director, I say a big “NDO NNU” on behalf of my family. But who will console me for your loss Buwee? Who? Who? If only the dead could hear. Adieu my dear friend! Rest in Peace till we meet again.