By Adagbo Onoja
It has to be a sermon by a priest of that intellectual pedigree to be such an exercise in social criticism. And to overshadow the tragedy for any family in losing three members in quick succession within a week as happened last July to the Ukpo family of Okpoma in Ogoja, Cross Rivers State of Nigeria. General Anthony Ukpo, first Minister for Information under General Ibrahim Babangida was sick. One of his brothers, Emmanuel Ukpo, an aeronautical engineer based in the United States, came visiting him but only to die three days after the General himself had died. Shortly after, one of their sisters – Lily Ukpo – Udozor – also died, making three of them from one family within a week.
It is a large family, with a Bishop, a businessman, a General, an aeronautical engineer and so on. In Ogoja, the family is known as the Ukpo Dynasty because they are everywhere. But even a dynasty can feel the loss of three at a go. They did and most observers said it was most manifest in Bishop Ukpo’s preaching at General Ukpo’s burial. He reportedly said he had been begging God to take him, being the eldest. Unfortunately, God did not dispose it that way and he had to come to grips with witnessing the burial of three of his juniors.
But it was the sermon at General Ukpo’s burial that has struck. That is the sermon by Prof Kekong Bisong. The social sharpness of the sermon was probably understandable, delivered by a Professor with two PhD, one in Theology from Leuven University and the second in Law from Ghent University, two top global ranking Belgian universities. There were many punchy takes in the sermon and one has to select one of them and organise the rest of the sermon around it. One such entry point might be the question of what the rest of us took away from General Ukpo’s mortality. As far as the professor-priest was concerned, the message must be the vanity of vanity. He was not suggesting that General Ukpo was guilty of vanity while alive. No. He was reminding the rest of us on that favourite subject of the speculative sciences: the inevitability of death and the problem of how best to live life. It is probably best to hear him in his own words, meaning a long quotation from the booklet:
“Another great lesson of any Memorial Service, of any funeral is that of the emptiness and vanity of all our earthly pursuits. So vanishes the glory of the world. All that struggle, all that anxiety is to no purpose. Today, General Ukpo will enter the grave with no money, with no diploma, with no military medals of honour, with no house, no farm, no business ideas. Like Job in the Old Testament, naked he came into this world and naked he goes out of it. Therefore, it is clear: this world of glamour and show of money and pleasure and ambition, this world of wealth, name and of possession, this world is a foam, this world of power and show of power is an inflated balloon. The world is a brief deceptive ecstasy. And so, if we are wise, we should now see through the empty balloon. We should learn to despise the values of the world. Let us lift up our heads and our hearts and pursue the values of the spirit, the values that survive the grace”
Like every discourse, the above quotation from Professor Bisong’s sermon contains its own areas of tension. A man with two PhD talking about no one going into the grave with no diploma or certificates is a grand slippage. But the power of his representation and the depth of his thought must strike all thinkers. His is not a manifesto for a life of poverty and demobilising austerity but a warning against excessive vanity that leads us to jump on others mindlessly, to tear someone else down just so that we can go forward. And then only for all we got – the wealth, the power, the degrees and glory – to end in one small space called the coffin. Life must, indeed, be such a mystery. In other words, in spite of the (Catholic) priestly bent of the professor, he speaks to social criticism, nearly in the manner Plato, for instance, did. Plato made the case for prudence, honesty, humility, hard work, a sense of balance and of justice, civility as crucial elements for productive living. It is possible to argue that Plato was emphasizing the values that would make slaves accept slavery of his time but if words have no static meaning, then Plato still made a significant social contribution to worthy living.
It is against this background he warns against sin. But it is not sin in its strictly theological sense but, again, in the wider context of the social: “the race and intrigue for power, raw, naked power and the wielding of this power like the rulers of the Gentiles”. He categorises this as sin, saying that people have forgotten what sin is. Well, he was there to remind them: “People go into life and death struggling for power and using it for selfishness, with oppression, deceit, fraud and all for money…. Today, we need to be reminded that bad governance is sin. That corruption is sin, election rigging is a sin, cultism is sin, cheating, injustice, envy, racism, tribalism, mass misery all around us is sin, naked and unashamed”.
Singling out lust for power and inordinate ambition as key threats to the Nigerian society, Prof Bisong argues how these are more pronounced among those who, for lack of any special endowment and outstanding leadership qualities, still wish to stand out and show off what neither nature nor nuture endowed them with. “We live in a society where everyone wants to at least a little appendage to his or her name, whether fake or real. People insist they must be addressed as Chief; His Excellency; Pastor; Honourable; Senator; Ambassdor; Sir; Doctor; Architect; Accountant; Surveyor; Engineer; Barrister; Apostle; Prophet; His Royal Highness. We now have High Chief and even Double Chief”, he mocked.
Putting the late General Ukpo on the scale, he gives him a clean bill of health because, to quote him again, Gen Ukpo demonstrated fairness and straightforwardness in dealing with others, was a man of exemplary modesty and charity, neither loud nor flamboyant and was associated with “the knowledge of an instructor; the tolerance of a gardener; the determination of a fisherman; the eloquence of a lawyer; the audacity of a politician; the inspiration of a prophet; the precision of a scientist; the care of a mother; the modesty of a monk; the gallantry of a soldier”.
It would have been difficult for anyone person to be all these but he probably gives us an idea of Ukpo in all those terms, adding his simplicity, reliability, humanness and ascetic life. He even went further to add how worried Ukpo had become, among others, “about the mediocrity of our educational system”. That is very possible, particularly if, like most of the elite from that area, he had attended a school such as Mary Knoll College in Ogoja in those days before he joined the military.
It is not possible to exhaust Prof Bisong’s sermon. It can be taken from many angles. The pamphlet will certainly find its way to academics, social activists, interpreters of clerical thinking and sundry researchers. That is not for everyone to agree with him and his analysis but even if for the language and newness he has brought to his themes.
General Tony Ukpo’s passage brings back memories of the ‘Babangida Boys’. He was one of them. It is even said IBB used to explore Ogoja along with him incognito in those days. That was before they all faded out from power and went to eke a living somehow. In Ukpo’s case, he went to hotel business but which he combined with philanthropy and Catholicism, what with his senior brother being the Catholic Bishop of Ogoja.
Perhaps, with Prof Bisong, we all can say ‘goodbye goodman’ to General Ukpo!