Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, composed this obituary for his friend and comrade, human rights activist Chima Ubani. It originally appeared in This Day.
Chima Ubani, who has been killed in controversial circumstances at the tragically untimely age of 42, was an iconic figure in the brutal struggle for demilitarization Nigeria.
Few Nigerians worked harder for or thought deeper about how to make this possible. In the next few weeks, there will, no doubt, be several tributes and obituaries to the legend of the man. Chima's commitment to the transformation of Nigeria took him on the fateful journey from which only his mortal remains returned. Irrespective of faith, creed, ethnicity, or status, many Nigerians who never knew or met him would justly feel they have lost an interlocutor and a trusted friend and advocate. The shock that greeted the news of his death within and outside Nigeria bespoke to a widely shared sense of personal loss as was evident in the traffic chaos created when Chima's body was returned to Lagos on Friday, August 23, for the journey to the morgue. Those of us who had the singular privilege of knowing and working with Chima have lost a friend, a brother, a leader, and thinker who came closest to embodying the virtues of civic sainthood.
During Nigeria's years of unending military rule, Chima managed to combine the roles of our Scarlet Pimpernel, Svengali, and Pied Piper without looking anything like the mythical image of any. The soldiers sought him for arrest and detention hither, thither, and everywhere, for the most part, unsuccessfully. He packed a larger-than-life reputation entirely at odds with his waif-like figure and disarmingly humble habits. On numerous occasions, Chima escaped arrest and detention because the security operatives, having no real idea of whom they sought, believed that he was a more imposing physical figure than the person who passed them by to make good on another escape.
Unlike Ché Guevara, the equally iconic and phlegmatic Argentine-born revolutionary who was killed in the Bolivian jungle, Chima was a revolutionary of a different kind. Unlike Chairman Mao, he had genuine disdain for the power of the gun as a source of power. Chima justifiably saw the gun as the antithesis of political power. He believed in the power of an enlightened people to transform their fate and environment. He died working to bring that about.
Chima may have shared the untimely and tragically youthful ending of Ché, but his life's was very much redolent of the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Oliver Reginald Tambo, the late former President of South Africa's ANC through its years in exile, in his belief in the mobilizing power of civic conscience. Contrary to popular myths that celebrate the revolutionary as an embodiment of cantankerous "isms" and schisms, Chima's radical commitment to the public good did not come from any tome or the scribbled mutterings of any departed ideologues with exotic names. For an electrifying public speaker and much-adored survivor of many a public rallies, Chima was rather self-effacing and abhorred gab-fests. He was ultimately made as a natural leader by his humility, remarkable intellect, his public conscience, and his highly disciplined intellectual and ethical rigor, which probably came from his background as the first son of a clergyman.
Chima was both a scientist and a polymath. He took his first degree in Horticulture from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he graduated at the top of his class despite being a much persecuted president of the students union in his final year. Chima needed a court order to take his degree examinations at UNN. Two years ago, he took a masters degree in communication policy from the University of Leicester in England.
In the 1990s, through many an unending festive nights nourished on water, bread and peanuts, we worked with a few treasured colleagues—Emma Ezeazu, Lanre Ehonwa, Innocent Chukwuma, Ogaga Ifowodo, Rotimi Sankore, O'Mano Edigheji, Omolade Adunbi, with occasional visits from Olisa Agbakoba—in the offices of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), which Chima headed until his untimely killing, polishing off the copies and proofs of another major report or the strategy and tactics for another civic undertaking. In one of these ruminations, Chima invented the Campaign for Democracy (CD) and went on to make it the vehicle for shaming the military out of power. The invention of the CD was another manifestation of Chima's acute strategic mind. He sensed the limits of the CLO as an organizational formation but paradoxically saw in these limits a unique opportunity to transcend organizational navel-gazing for a wider strategic objective. It was typical of Chima to take this vision to the road and to ultimate victory against the soldiers.
Chima always managed to communicate his ideas without giving offense. He wore an iron will rather comfortably. When he disagreed, Chima made every effort to understand the other point of view. Entirely in keeping with his nature, Chima went the extra mile to invite representatives of the Babangida regime to the early convenings of the CD, explaining to them that they needed to speak to the Nigerian people. He was the ultimate team player, able to sublimate personal judgment for wider strategic purposes. Thus it was possible that through the many struggles, crises and realignments of the many associational formations of Nigeria's prodemocracy and civic movements, Chima was the one bridge trusted by both the left and the right to bring calm through our many troubled waters.
Chima Ubani will, no doubt, achieve a hugely deserved apotheosis in the pantheon of civic martyrdom attributable, I believe, to the subversive power of his humble public conscience. Like all martyrs, however, Chima's private burdens must count among our legacies. He leaves behind four children, the youngest, a set of twins born in January 2005. The eldest is barely five. These children will have to live in a house, go to school, and receive medical care, among many of life's other necessities. Sadly, they'll never know the great man they had for a dad. Chima's widow will face the difficult challenge of surviving in a society that, if truth be told, has never been kind to widows, young or old. It will not be easy. Those of us who knew Chima as friend, brother, leader and icon owe it to his memory to look out for the welfare of his young family. Chima made our public travails his personal business. In his death we must make his personal business our public concern.