I spent over 20 years of my working life abroad as a university teacher, banker and international civil servant with an unblemished record. I have no criminal record — not even a parking ticket. Sadly, it is in my own fatherland that I’m being subjected to criminal investigation and such extreme political persecution. Please, pray for me. I have reasons to believe that my life is in danger and that some powerful political forces want to silence me forever for speaking the truth. For speaking on behalf of the Holy Martyrs — of thousands of innocent children, women, elderly and youths that have been killed in our beloved country. — Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, 2021.
Today, I have not come to bid farewell to a compatriot whose resolution to strengthen the political system of his homeland through revolutionizing the minds of the people continues to flog the political merchandisers in their weakest point. Instead, I have come to combine my lamentations with the grief of others who have accepted the deceased as the shining light in the darkness of leadership quagmire that Nigeria fits its description. Justifiably so, I do have reasons to lament because the agitations of a critical voice represented by Dr. Obadiah Mailafia are a reminder that the country called Nigeria might have increased in age, but it remains a dwarf in the practices of federalism and democracy. Any country that cannot protect its minority members is a failure.
Apart from the insinuation that the sudden death of the deceased cannot be excused from the see-no-evil political elite of the country, as implicitly contained in his declaration quoted above, that sudden exit from the face of the earth is an affirmation that dysfunctional systems are not usually ineffective as the general impression against them has indicated. These systems are effective in frustrating and then losing their best brains to different causes—death, migrations, desertion, among other things. Nigerian systems are not especially effective positively, not because they lack the requisite ability and materials to do so, but because they are paralyzed by leaders who lack the needed goodwill to drive the people forward.
For all it is worth, Mailafia’s death was avoidable; however, its (un)avoidability is proportional to the leaders’ intentions who control the country’s power. The power controllers of dysfunctional systems are usually impugning on the autonomous right of institutions so that they could get results that align with their myopic vision. Such is the danger of having hind-sighted dummies in the theatre of power of a country, more so, of a country that is supposed to be the most populous Black nation. But when these self-serving individuals at the corridor of power pursue their selfish agenda in their bid to shut every critical voice, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic comment makes it apparent that what they are doing is called a defence mechanism. The relationship between the systematic silencing of a vibrant voice and dysfunctional system is that instead of facing the bulk of responsibilities staring the country’s leaders in the face, they scare genius minds away from the corridor of representation and force them into accepting silence as the preferred mode of political participation. Leaders who are faced with ideas deficit pay more prominent attention to voices that raise contradictory opinions because their ignorance is usually drowned in the ocean of truth, which these voices speak all the time.
Please make no mistake. I have not alleged that the death of Mailafia came from any particular interest group as far as Nigeria is concerned, but it is difficult to absolve the government of such indictment when it has successfully registered into the minds of individuals who are supposed to discharge their statutory duties without intimidation, that the government is particularly interested in how it handles its clients, be it from bank to its customers, police to the citizens, court to the people, and even hospitals to their patients. This conclusion is inevitable given the agonizing declaration of Obadiah Mailafia on a dying bed in one of the country’s most respected medical services arenas.
For the honourable man, the deceased, to have declared that “I have reasons to believe that my life is in danger and that some powerful political forces want to silence me forever for speaking the truth” suggests that institutions cannot function effectively in a political geography where the government is averse to opposition and perspectives that put them on their toes. Ironically, in a truthfully democratic setting, no government would function effectively without having a persistent voice calling it to order and charging it to undertake its statutory responsibilities.
Today, as I write, Dr. Obadiah Mailafia, with whom I shared a communicative space some few weeks ago about raging issues and emerging concerns around Nigeria, exists no more—a victim of institutional decadence that follows nearly all postcolonial African countries. At the departure of the West in the Nigerian political landscape, we thought it would be the immediate euthanizing of invirile leadership, bad governance, and insecure political elites whose sense of safety is ensured only when they victimize the defenceless masses. However, experiences in recent times have not only told us we were too ambitious with our dreams; it has also revealed to us that we were hallucinating, in 1960, about a utopian future.
What does it matter if the picture of the person who occupies the highest political seat in the country is different when the safety of revolutionaries cannot be guaranteed immediately they decide to speak for the masses? Has colonialism not eroded the sense of postcolonial Nigerian leaders knowing that critical voices against their administration, even when they have ulterior motives, help drive them to a direction where it would be easier to achieve greatness? Who would tell the Nigerian government, and maybe every society that is averse to truth-telling, that intellectual voices like Mailafia need to be preserved for they serve as eyes to their people and the country’s future? Who?
If the statement attributed to the dead is factual, at what point would we collectively, as a people, understand that while you can silence the body that houses the voice of reason, no one can silence the voice itself, for it speaks using different body containers? From the inception of human society, there have been people who would offer alternative perspectives to everything. In fact, these people are usually understood based on the age of collective wisdom that their society has acquired. They consider them good or evil according to what they define as good or bad, which has something to do with their evolutionary progress.
During his time in Rome, Aristotle saw differently from what the ancient Romans had seen and dared the system to improve their vision by considering, as fundamental principles of life, those things they had frozen. Ironically, he was tried before by the law for which he was trying to challenge. It was evident that Aristotle was against a war he would not materially win. He lost his life in the process, but his vision would eventually fire Rome to an enviable position in many aspects of life. Galileo, during his period, saw the world differently as an astrologer and a philosopher. The leaders were paranoid, and they crushed his life because they could not fathom his thoughts. Dr. Mailafia, with whom I communicated last month, became sore in the throat of a particular political class, who derived benefits from the compromised values of a medical system to “silence his voice forever.”
Beyond the deep sore dug in the throat of your loved ones, Mailafia, because of your sudden and unforeseen demise, the memories you left behind are a scent of courage and hope because you showed that a geometric rise of people is possible regardless of their economic and political background. Your life was a lesson that one can be generally successful without having to take the wrong routes. You rose from grass and definitely to grace. From zero, you became a hero just because your determination to defy the gravity of poverty outweighed your zeal for all unnecessary distractions. Because you lived a life of purpose, you were an inspiration to a generation of Nigerians who never imagined arriving at the pinnacle of their career due to the impression that the system is rigged to eternally frustrate and discourage them. This means that while you acknowledged the dysfunctionality of the system in which you found yourself, you never relented or showed a sign of defeat to nature. You made use of the materials available in your surroundings and transformed the life you were given. Today, your fans, starting from your immediate family members (children, wife, and even parents) to the admirers of the legacy you left behind, are proud to have associated with you in your lifetime.
But then you have left a wound in our hearts, those of us who have enjoyed the fecundity of your wisdom from a close distance. You have gone suddenly away from our midst, making us feel sharp and robust pains that leave untold emotional wreck in our minds. It was not easy for you to die, apparently, but trust me when I say that your pain was temporary and your agony was very brief compared to what we, whom you left behind, would feel anytime we remember the shining Soul that you were and the beautiful mind that you represented. Mailafia, the journey we have chosen to thread as public intellectuals is becoming lonelier, compounded by the cloudy future we face in this trajectory where voices of freedom and reason are aggressively challenged because they speak a truth that is too deafening for tyrants all over the world to accommodate.
But would we now bow to their pressure and submit the future of innocent generations to their hand, Obadiah? Would we now lose focus and be distracted by those who window-dressed their cowardice and choose to lick the boot of political merchandizer as a way to augment their living and pretend everything is good, Mailafia? Would we now accede to the pressure of selfish leaders who wanted to run a government that does not entertain alternative perspectives, dear erudite?
I ask all these rhetorical questions because of the prescience of your predictions about the country in recent years, and because I was struck by the unusualness of your exit from the face of the earth. In my last conversation with you, you expressed your concerns and mentioned how the welfare of the people in the country has been technically silenced by the emergence of curable security problems. I remember you saying that the future is in the gloom as long as the political machinations in the country continue with such a level of questionable determination. You expressed your feelings about the country’s economy that has witnessed unprecedented deterioration in recent times because of poor policies and an unwillingness to ask for help where and when it is needed. You decried the apparent political misdemeanour that has encouraged this predatory economic geography and explained to the international audience that surviving the current economic hardship that has bedevilled the country is like surfing an ocean without the necessary equipment and with no dependable knowledge of swimming. You never really imagined the courage you enhanced in the hearts of many who share from your optimism, provided the country’s boat is rightly paddled. Together, we recently discussed the expanding dangerous legacies that neocolonial African leaders make from the inheritance they get from their erstwhile imperialists and how it seems they are married to the ideas imposed on them for life.
About Nigeria, Dr. Mailafia dialogued with me on the possibility of internal colonization, which people at the helm of power seem to exploit continuously. The fact that people’s psychology has been complicated by various experiences of disappointment, discriminatory regulations, and marginalization has further emboldened them to take a similar trajectory when they have opportunities to serve in any position of power. I remember vividly when Dr. Mailafia concluded that the rot has permeated nearly all institutions in the country, as it has moved confidently away from being domiciled by the government at the central level to every level where administration of power is demonstrated. Everyone becomes a potential despot, seeking any available opportunity to unleash their mayhem on the innocent people of the country. In essence, seeking power has been considered a great desire to provide some immunity to the individual away from the regulations naturally meant for the majority.
How could you have died, Obadiah, when you came up with lofty ideas about how the country can face head-on the challenges of mismanagement and insecurity that have bedevilled it? Were you not the one who said that fundamental changes will happen to the country the moment the citizens elect politicians of good political will? When I asked you how this is possible and ameliorative to the challenges we identified in the country, you told me categorically that good political will paves ways for other transformational engagements of every country. I remember with keen interest how you demonstrably linked the political goodwill of a leader to their interests in taking active attention to areas that deserve urgent leadership involvement. You said that through this, all institutions landlocked in the geography of dysfunctionality would have the concentration that could immediately propel them into what naturally obtains in a democratic society. You mentioned that to strengthen the country’s government, the quest for equality, which can be promised by the installation of a decentralized system, would be possible only when there is the political will by the commander-in-chief. You concluded, albeit hilariously, by getting a reinforcement of your position by quoting Psalm 11 vs 3 of the Holy Bible: “If the foundations are destroyed – what do the righteous do?”
Our belief that the country’s bureaucrats are firmly behind this disruption because they have vested economic interests that they seek to protect at all cost was strengthened by your educative insight when you explained the connection between them and the government policy statements. We both lamented that whenever the country seemed to have made any modest progress in putting their challenging democratic experiences behind, they are usually overtaken by leaders who have no business in the corridor of power in the first place. Temptingly, this is where we almost shelved the blames of irresponsible leadership that has beleaguered the country to the West. While they are entirely absolved of this indictment because of the different interventionist engagements that sometimes have negative consequences on the people, there can be no excuse for the leaders who have made themselves the willing tool for the facilitation of exploitation by the West. Nigerian leaders are vain. They are eternally married to selfish ambition as long as they have financial and economic privileges, notwithstanding the conditions of those underneath them.
Listening to the announcement of your demise came with a rude shock, the magnitude of which I struggled to contain with a powerful price. For a man of your zeal and bravado, of course, you cannot evade death, just as nobody will, but then, death happening to you at that age and stage is something of a generational loss to the country, even in their ignorance. Beyond what could be imagined, you placed the Middle Belt of the country within the proper frame of relevance, where national concentration on them became inevitable, and their travails and challenges have become an international discourse. It was because you strive to arrive at excellence that you won the opportunity to serve at the apex of your career, in which such has been systematically drawn away from your people for a protracted period. You have produced ideas and philosophies, made informed decisions at the national level, and have contributed significantly to the promotion of excellence in the country while you had the opportunity to do so. Even when you left the public office, you continued to offer vital support to enhance the country’s progress.
Within the period of your existence, haven’t you challenged the stereotype by defying all the pressure from offensive camps? Unlike many revolutionaries, you never saw yourself lacking power, even when it was apparent you had no political one. You believed that your voice was strong enough to carve out the voltage of energy needed to electrify the world that appears very committed to selfish ambition and purposeless aggrandizement of wealth. You would not bow out for pressure, and because you were committed to the course of freedom and egalitarian society, you have won for yourself a place that would continue to exist beyond your anticipation and which already is outliving you. Without minding whose ox is gored, you were brilliantly critical of political moves that flagrantly undermined the economic and security safety of people. Your voice was not shaky whenever you educated the world on the importance of alternative perspectives. When others speak with their tongues in their cheeks, you came boldly to face the power brokers who have no single trace of passion for the country they lead.
Saying adieu to you now that you have departed is in the correct order. Wishing that you face a joyous experience in your spiritual journey is the least that we can do. You have gone to a place where we believe you would face less pressure, yet it is a place we are not in a hurry to go. We would be more content to have your presence amidst us so that we can continue to absorb the pressure of the unyielding African political leaders together. We would have loved more that we engage them in the intellectual world where we arm the defenceless people with the power of the pen to stand up for themselves and their exploitative leaders that are causing them all manners of pains. Undoubtedly, the fight started by generations before us, which obviously cannot disappear in our generation, would continue to have our contributions because nobody is free until everyone is free. Your voice has become immortal:
May the Almighty God give your family the strength to bear the irreparable loss and fortify them to move on in the right manner. Your disappearance has caused them some grief, certainly. But then, may they be consoled by the understanding that you led a fulfilled life while you were here.
Adieu, dear Obed!
*Prof Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair at The University of Texas at Austin, USA. He had on his popular online programme Toyin Falola Interviews had an extensive interview with the late Mailafia on August 15, 2021.