Our van came to a sudden halt just before a bridge near Irrua, a town in the northern part of Midwest region of Nigeria about a third of the way into the journey. It was at a road block manned by heavily armed soldiers. It was in 1967 and I was traveling from Auchi to Benin City to spend the school holidays with my older brother who had recently relocated there from Lagos. I was traveling by Armels; primarily a postal service who used their vehicles to carry paying passengers when there was room. They were renowned for punctuality, reliability and were cheaper than most other coaches and were especially good for students like me who weren’t bothered by the discomfort of sitting between bags of mail. I am not sure if the drivers did this on the side or if the company was aware and approved of this side venture.
We found out that the bridge was so badly damaged that our vehicle could not get through to continue our journey and so we disembarked to join a throng of other travellers in the same predicament.
We then found out that our military governor had come to see the damage. The Biafran soldiers had blown the bridge up in their retreat to stall the federal government soldiers who were in hot pursuit and heavily armed.
Colonel Ogbemudia was down at the river under the bridge working with engineers to repair the damage. Everyone who came before us went down to help. I was amazed to see the Governor carrying bricks and other materials needed to repair the damage and it wasn’t for the cameras! I went down to help but they had enough people and so I was not needed. It was such a lovely example to see a head of state getting his hands dirty. It left a lasting impression that has stayed with me to this day.
The Biafrans’ invasion of the Midwest, codenamed Operation Torch, began on August 9 when 3,000 Biafran soldiers led by General Victor Banjo crossed the River Niger Bridge into Asaba. They spread across the state and remained until September 20 1967, when they were dislodged by the Federal government soldiers.
Samuel Ogbemudia has been described as, “a populist, dedicated to reconstruction after the war. He initiated improvements in the areas of sports, urban development, education, public transportation, housing and commerce. He built the Ogbe sports stadium now renamed Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium, built the three-story National Museum. Other projects included Agbede Mechanized Farm, Rural Electrification Board, Bendel Steel Structures, Bendel Pharmaceuticals, Bendel Boatyard, the University of Benin and the Bendel Line with luxury air-conditioned coaches that traversed the entire nation.” The service included female drivers; a novelty and a first in the country and possibly globally. The list is endless and he achieved most of his goals with distinction.
I had seen him before in Igarra, where I grew up, from a distance; he had come to visit our newly built general hospital and when he found out it had no electricity and was not even wired for one, he refused to leave until it was done. A team of engineers worked all day and got it completed and working before he left!
He gave university scholarships to students for all backgrounds who performed excellently well in the WASC or O’Level examinations. I was a beneficiary of the state scholarship which paid for 6 years of my university education. He made it possible for a boy from Lampese to have his education at Nigeria’s premier university, when my dad couldn’t afford to. He didn’t only award us scholarship but came to visit us in the university to find out if we had needs. A few heads of states in southern Nigeria tried to copy him.
He had foresight, unparalleled leadership by example, created a culture of pride in our jobs. He would be waiting in government offices to time when civil servants got to work. He made workers get to work on time and accountable, gave incentives for academic excellence to boys and girls and financial support for our education. His support was without discrimination or ethnic preferences.
He engendered discipline and was a man of integrity.
I am told he’s gone the way of the fathers and one of my greatest regrets in life is that I was unable to thank him in person; just to prostrate before him as a mark of respect and a show of appreciation for what he did for me and my generation. Just remarkable!
Ogbemudia was one in a million. His achievements and legacy will live forever…
May your blessed soul forever rest in peace.
by Sam Ajulo @ Molemude