By Adagbo Onoja
Once Comrade John Odah is on the line and asks you to prepare your mind for bad news, then something tragic has happened. This time, however, I thought I was ready for him, thinking it would hardly be anything outside Edumoga where we both come from and which has been seized by gangsters the Nigerian State has not been able to subdue yet, two months running. But John had something more devastating yesterday morning. He was calling to tell me that Professor Abubakar Momoh had died. Nobody plays with news of death, certainly not that of Abu Momoh and certainly not by John Odah. They were much closer to each other than I to any of them. It was John who, thinking about resolving my stalled doctoral programme, recruited Momoh into it, someone he thought could beat me into line. That was in the second half of 2015.
Of course, I had known the late Momoh since the mid 1980s but never got to do anything together at a close range. So, it was in 2015 we ever had anything to do together. I remember every minute of the first meeting in his office. He had called for the draft thesis. Leafing through, he raised an alarm immediately, saying that, from his experience as an examiner, he was sure I would not go beyond 10 minutes before someone shut me down because I was taking too much in the opening paragraph. What if I can defend it?, I asked. He brushed it aside, drawing an analogy between a doctoral thesis and setting out with a car. His argument went thus: When you turn on the ignition, you allow the engine to warm. Then you start from gear one, move to two, three and it goes on like that. You cannot start from gear four and say you can defend it. In this particular case, you cannot defend it because you are not that clear.
As we went over that, he moved one gear ahead by saying I should forget the draft altogether and tell him what I thought I was doing. That done, he said I should go and write exactly what I had just said and bring it to him. He accused me of hiding the gist in my head. A thesis is about the gist, he would lament in frustration with me. I was not communicating, he said. The day’s achievement, in his view, was that he had penetrated me. He issued more warnings, the highlight of which was that my doctoral thesis should be a piece of work that can be sold anywhere. It shouldn’t just be a PhD for me because, as far as he was concerned, “you are not going back to that journalism. You are now going into academia”. How could I be starting a new profession at 50, I would protest. Not for him any such protest.
I went and wrote what I had presented orally, even as I still thought my earlier opening was more powerful and spot on than what he had fallen in love with. But the war was not over yet. The war continued with his red biro wherever he thought I had committed an infraction. And Momoh’s list of infractions could be much; from ungrammatical constructions to unclear expressions to methodologically compromised statements or use of a concept without clarifying immediately. Nothing escaped him. Any of these would attract red biro remarks such as ‘you have started again’, ‘meaning what?’ and so on. In this, there was no mercy. If you want to see his red eyes, argue that a certain concept has a settled meaning. No concept is uncontested, he would say and ask you to accompany the concept with a clarification, no matter how scanty. It leads you to the conclusion that supervisors are the same all over. At the University College London earlier in 2015, a supervisor chastised me for not explaining what I meant by power. With a qualifier standing guard over power in the title, I did not think I needed to do any clarification. I was verbally marked down but that was an MSc level encounter. I don’t know who even invented supervisors!
One other area that could bring his red biro down furiously is coming across a quote, no matter the stature of the author in question. He wants you to paraphrase whoever it is. He considered it laziness to do otherwise. He accepts a quotation only where it is absolutely an imperative. His own criterion of where it is an imperative is where the words used are unsurpassed and in the weight they convey. So, in Momoh, one was with a believer in the caution that ‘it is not what the author said but what you are saying and with which the author’s view might be in agreement.
As such, each session with Momoh was as wearisome as it was inviting. He was as harsh as he was simple. He was as furious as he was patient. He could spend up to two hours explaining a point and why you have to follow that way. He had the time and the mind to give his all. Momoh was a human being. When he sensed that he might have overstretched you, he would say yes, it has to be like this because I spoke at length with your supervisor and he is very pleased with what we are doing. He is waiting for us. He has a sense of the supervisor in question as an institution in himself. He was not engaging in sycophancy. It was a manifestation of Momoh’s great admiration for whoever has established his ranking order by adding value to the gamut. He extended this admiration to whomever or whatever he saw or considered to be simply critical and sound in scholarly terms. Even as he hammered me relentlessly, he was full of praises for what he considered my superb control of the literature. He, however, felt that I had a rebellious inclination against the procedures and for which he was determined to bend me until I was completely straight.
At this rate, a bonding was bound to develop between us. This was more so that, beyond Chapter One, we didn’t have much problems again. There were still red biro marks here and there but he liked the LR. Methodology passed without any quarrels beyond a few sentences he inserted or removed. By the fourth chapter, he had told someone I was doing very well. That didn’t stop him from asking me two questions one day. In response to the first question, he said I should go and restore a section he had queried. The second question required him to have completed reading the entire chapter. That would no longer happen. Added to this was the fact that most of our sessions entailed an eating segment, mostly before the academic wrestling, followed by money gift occasionally at the end of the session and being driven to where I found my way back home. That was before my car came. One day, a session took up to 2 am. He said I should go and sleep in his house. I thought I could still make it home as long as it was Abuja. He dropped me off at the particular point from where I assured him I would easily get a vehicle that time of the night, (morning rather). Unfortunately, none of us noticed that it was set to rain. That was exactly what happened. As a result of that, I didn’t call him within the one hour we agreed I would call to notify him that I had made it home. So, he called and it was just sheer luck that the call coincided with my getting a Shylock cab that made him not to hit the road and come to ensure I got home. Even then, he insisted on speaking to the cabman to confirm I wasn’t being modest in a suicidal manner.
What became clear to me was someone defined by a combination of academic high mindedness and a deep humanism, of emancipatory proportion. It is not strange that someone fondly called him ‘Abu, the people’. As an academic all his life before he came to The Electoral Institute, he had no case of succumbing to the temptation of taking advantage of any category of students, male or female. Nor was he party to anything that violated the individual or group rights of students. He would fight and fight vigorously too against such. This is not what he said. This is what is documented to his credit.
He had mellowed, of course. He was more combative as a typical activist of their generation in the 1980s. It was how he ended up as a National Treasurer of the Academic Staff Union of Universities and a member of the ASUU Negotiating Team with the Federal Government over the series of strike actions in 1994 and 1995. There, he ended up with responsibility to oversee the feeding arrangement, either as the youngest member in that team or just as his own share of tasks. He told us the story of what he used to do with that power to the now equally late Professor Eskor Toyo. Toyo’s age, all-round subject matter mastery and radical heritage combined to give him a debating advantage which ASUU valued though without proclaiming it. They found that the debating advantage turned to his most unsparing siege on the system and the team if he was hungry. So, Momoh who administered the food somehow arrived at a strategy of making sure that Toyo’s breakfast was denied or delayed so that he arrived at the day’s negotiating session hungry. He would eat his food eventually but after hunger had propelled him to unleash the kind of analysis the government team could never respond to. It was a case of anything that served the ‘revolution’ was justified.
Abu Momoh was comparable to the elephant in the story of its explorers. Many people encountered him from different angles and would have different stories to tell, including his own frailties. But, as far as academia is concerned, he was absolutely high minded and wanted everyone involved to raise the stakes one way or the other. Even the status of the university one attended mattered to him. He too had traversed that universe in Nigeria, Africa, Europe and North America. Only Asia and Latin America escaped his academic antennae. The prayer is that some people would be able to publish a collection of his papers that are now seminal in relation to Nigeria’s interminable instability. That is one way he would continue to live with us, speak to us and be part of the conversation going on towards the possibility of another Nigeria.
Meanwhile, it’s the beginning of a difficult, gradual coming to grips with the reality of Momoh who is no more reachable. Although he was basically done with me, remaining tidying up and handing me over to my formal supervisor, a bond had already developed that introduces a personal dimension to his death for me. Perhaps, one should have been more intrusive into his private life. He was looking more and more stressed. But he remained active and vigorous, the same word ThisDay’s Kayode Komolafe would apply to him. As such, it was difficult to say if the Momoh you saw somehow stressed today would not turn up bouncing at the next public event. That could make one an alarmist if one had been asking other comrades to look in on Momoh’s health. Not when it is now understood that he was, in fact, driving himself around Abuja for much of last Sunday afternoon. Before 6 am on Monday, he was gone. That was the phenomenon about Momoh! Crying is no answer to the finality of it all but it is impossible not to cry. May his spirit be as restless as ever, fighting for the same values he always fought for!