|Urhobo Historical Society
Omafume Onoge: Africa’s Revolutionary Marxist
By G. G. Darah and Sunny Awhefeada
State University, Abraka, Nigeria
Professor Omafume Friday Onoge, Africa’s most distinguished Marxist social anthropologist, passed away into eternity on Sunday July 12, 2009, due to prolonged illness. He would have been 71 next October. Professor Onoge was an academic and cultural colossus and activist who applied revolutionary methods to advance the cause of democratic change in the Niger Delta region, Nigeria, and the African continent. With his death, a dark penumbra of human capital wastage now overhangs the world’s horizon of radical scholarship and political activism. As a multi-talented researcher, teacher and inspirational speaker, Onoge’s intellectual radar covered all fields of academic intervention and struggles for change and justice. We are not competent to evaluate the quality of Onoge’s contributions to the diverse and dynamic vineyard of thought and political action. We shall focus this tribute on his theoretical discourses and radical activism in the domains of the social sciences, culture, and literature.
Born on October 20 1938, Onoge attended primary and secondary schools in his native Effurun before proceeding to the United States of America in 1961 for University education. In America, he attended Macalester College, Minnesota, the same alma mater of Ghana’s Kofi Annan, the former United Nation’s Secretary General. Onoge’s prodigious potentials were first demonstrated at Macalester when he completed the four-year programme in two years and making a First Class on graduation. He was the second student in the history of Macalester College to win the Dan Forth Fellowship for post-graduate studies, 1963-1967. A Federal Government of Nigeria scholarship award took him to the prestigious Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the legendary Kennedy family. Onoge returned in 1970 garlanded with a Harvard M. A. and Ph. D degrees in Social Anthropology. He started lecturing at the University of Ibadan where he applied his arsenal of Marxism and Afrocentric ideology to introduce revolutionary pedagogy in the Social Sciences and literary criticism. Onoge also taught at Harvard University and the Universities of Dares Salaam, Tanzania, (1976-1977) and Jos form 1982-2002 where he served as Head of Department of Sociology, the Dean of the Post-graduate School, Member of the University Council, and University Orator.
His passion for education for liberation was evident during the three years of the work of the Darah-led project committee for the establishment of the private Western Delta University, Oghara. Onoge had been course mate of Professor Nurideen Adedipe at the School of Agriculture, Ibadan, who was then the chairman of the Standing Committee on Private Universities of the National Universities Commission (NUC). This association was vital in the quality of interaction with the NUC. With the Uvwie monarch, His Royal Majesty, Abe I, Onoge was a motivating influence in the consolidation of the Federal University of Petroleum Resources set up in 2007 to partially redress decades of past neglect suffered by the oil producing states in the location of tertiary institutions.
Professor Onoge also occupied the exalted post of Executive Director of the Port Harcourt-based Centre for Advanced Social Science set up by the late Professor of political economy, Claude Ake. When Onoge retired to his natal community of Ugborikoko in Effurun, Delta State, he committed his learning and diverse experience to the promotion of the politics of cultural renewal and emancipation of the Urhobo people and the Niger Delta Region. He was the intellectual power house in the 78-year-old Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) and the Uvwie Kingdom of his birth. He was unequivocally committed to the executives of Chief Benjamin Okumagba and his successor, Senator Felix Ibru, the former Governor of Delta State (1991-1993). As a member of the UPU think tank Onoge brought rigour and panache to deliberations and this was evident in tenor and focus of communiqués of meetings which bore the solid stamp of proletarian and ideological sophistication. Onoge was on the delegation of Delta State to the Nigerian National Political Reforms Conference in Abuja (2005) and served on the Ledum Mitee-led Technical Committee on the Niger Delta in 2008.
Onoge’s numerous writings, essays, and public lectures articulated the imperative necessity for revolutionary change and democratic reconstruction of post-colonial African societies. His theories and praxis were grounded on the special colonial and neocolonial predicament of Africa and the African Diaspora resulting from centuries of European capitalist and imperialist violence and plunder. Onoge’s thoughts and actions leaned on the experiences and theoretical works of veteran scholars and humanists who had combated imperialist situations in other climes of the world. He was a compendium of knowledge on radical thinkers and liberators in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean region, Europe, and Asia. He would quote effortlessly the views of international revolutionaries such as Karl Marx, Frederich Engels of Germany/England, Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin of Russia, Mao Tse-tung of China, and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. Onoge had a thorough grasp of the writings and careers of African American and Third World thinkers and political angels of change such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcom X, Claude McKay, and Martin Luther King, and Angela Davis of the United States. In the Caribbean and South America, Onoge was a first-rate authority on radical icons such as Marcus Garvey of Jamaica Toussaint L’Overture of Haiti, and George Padmore, C. L. R. James, and John La Rose of Trinidad and Tobago, George Lamming of Barbados, Walter Rodney of Guyana, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara of Cuba, and Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon of Martinique.
In the African “homeland” Professor Onoge was the best interpreter of the thoughts of Edward Blyden of Liberia, Africanus Horton of Sierra Leone, Casely Hayford and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea-Conakry, and Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde. He was at home with the works and politics of Felix Moume of Cameroon, Agostihno Neto of Angola, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel of Mozambique, and Albert Luthuli, Oliver Thambo, Giovani Mbeki, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. However, being a Marxist dialectician, Onoge expanded the frontiers and possibilities of received ideas and domesticated them for the Nigerian and African milieu. In the true tradition of Marxism, Onoge creatively combined theory with practice by always seeking innovative ways to communicate the reality of the African world in the complex and rapidly changing global environment.
In this universal tradition of revolutionary scholarship and politics, Onoge’s profundity of thought, theoretical sophistication and erudition of expression put him in the same pantheon as the distinguished Senegalese Egyptologist, Cheikh Anta Diop, Samir Amin of Egypt, Mohammed Babu, Dan Nabudere and Grant Kamenju of Tanzania. Omafume Onoge also belongs to the class of venerated anti-imperialist thinkers such as Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Paul Baran of India, Andre Gunder Frank of Argentina, Archie Mafeje, Bernard Magubane, and Ruth First of South Africa, George Novack of the United States, Ernest Mandel of Belgium, and Basil Davidson of the United Kingdom.
Nigeria, Onoge’s kindred spirits in the
Nigerian academia include indomitable intellectuals such as Comrade Ola
Toyo, Essien Udom, Chike Obi, Mokwugo Okoye, Eme Awa, Mayirue
Ake, Nkenna Nzimiro, Chimere Ikoku, Okwudiba Nnoli, Segun Osoba, Bade
Peter Palmer Ekeh, Bala Usman, Baba Oluwide, Edwin Madunagu and Patrick
(Jamaican). We are aware that Onoge’s Urhobo compatriots, Ekeh and
would not insist on being classed among Leftist scholars, yet they
luminous limelight of being the most prolific intellectuals on Urhobo
and politics. Although they were not in university settings, the top
the Zikist Movement like M. C. K. Ajuluchukwu, Abubakar Zukogi, and
Abdallah were of the same ideological cast with Onoge’s academic
Within the Urhobo universe of activist scholars and nationalists
stature is comparable to that of Mukoro Mowoe, St. Gideon Urhobo who
the Gods Kingdom Society church in 1934, and Chief T. E. A. Salubi, a
liner of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC),
UPU (1961-1982), Minister of Education in Western Region (1962-1963)
prolific writer and historian.
In the Nigerian star-studded pantheon of radical nationalist we must mention Uche Chukwumerije who, from his days as ideologist and propagandist in the rebel Republic of Biafra, has managed to advertise his badge of “Comrade” as Secretary (Minister) of Information during General Sani Abacha’s regime (1993-1998) and a three-tenure Senator of the Federal Republic since 1999.
Perhaps it is helpful to recognize a sub-group of literary scholars, critics and cultural analysts where Onoge stood out in dazzling stellar colours. This Nigerian literarti include Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka, Emmanuel Obiechina, Sa’adu Zungur, Abiola Irele, Dan Izevbaye, Sam Assein, Steve Ogude, Theo Vincent, Biodun Jeyifo, Ropo Sekoni, Chinweizu, Ime Ikkideh, Femi Osofisan, Kole Omotoso, and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Others in this pantheon are Tanure Ojaide, Olu Obafemi, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Festus Iyayi, Bode Sowande, Tunde Fatunde, Emevwo Biakolo, Tess Onwueme, and Ben Okri. However, Adeboye Babalola, Oyin Ogunba, Isidore Okpewho, Donatus Nwoga and, Dandatti Abdulkadir occupy a niche of theirs on the basis of their pioneering contribution to oral literature and folklore scholarship.
The continental spread of these Afrocentric creators and interpreters of artistic culture covers names such as Alex La Guma, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo of Kenya, Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Nawal El Shadawi of Egypt, Mariama Ba, and Ousmane Sembene of Senegal, Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti of Cameroon, and Nurudeen Farah of Somalia. The veterans in African oral literature and folklore studies include B.W. Vilakazi, Thomas Mofolo, Sol Platje, and Daniel Kunene of South Africa, John Mbiti of Kenya, Okot p’Bitek of Uganda, Frances Bebey of Cote d’Ivoire, J.H.K Nketia and Kofi Awoonor of Ghana, David Diop and Alioune Diop of Senegal, Ahmadu Hampate Ba of Mali, and Alain Ricard of France.
Coming from a family with a solid heritage of peasant humanism in his natal community of Ugborikoko, Onoge’s early professional training after graduating from Urhobo College Effurun in 1957 was as an agronomist, first at the oil palm plantation ,Effurun, then at the Moor Plantation School of Agriculture, Ibadan, where he was nick-named “Heavy Bella Faraday: the Local Elvis Presley” for his skills in playing the guitar. It can be said that his scholarly and political career was shaped for greatness at Ibadan. This was at the dawn of independence for Nigeria in the late 1950s as she was just emerging from the dark decades of British colonial rule. The University College Ibadan was aflame with radical nationalist and Pan Africanist ideas. Onoge would ride a bicycle from Moor Plantation some 15 km away to watch Soyinka’s plays at the Arts Theatre at the campus. At Urhobo College, he took part in drama events held at the King George IV Hall in Warri. Onoge was an avid listener to BBC drama programmes which made him knowledgeable in all the new writings of Africa in that decade of “the wind of change” as the former British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was to describe that momentous phase of African history.
Unknown by many, Onoge was also a produce buyer of a commodity firm in Uromi in Edo State where his zeal for university education was fired by a kind manager who was always urged him to read hard and seek admission to a tertiary institution. It was at Moor Plantation in Ibadan that Onoge applied for one of the American Scholarship Schemes which he won purely on merit. As he used to tell us, the day the telegram conveying the message of the scholarship award came, he wept for joy because it signified the crossing of a mighty hurdle regarding the cost of higher education for someone from a poor family background.
As we have said, Onoge’s socialist credentials were nurtured in the pre-capitalist social ecology of rural Urhobo and his university education in America in the 1960s decade of the Civil Rights Movement honed and sharpened his humanistic instincts in favour of an egalitarian and anti-capitalist society. For his generation of thinkers, socialism and Marxism came as an irresistible alternative. As Professor Onigu Otite, his colleague and fellow Urhobo scholar would recall, Onoge took a daring gamble by doing his doctorate research on the Christian charismatic-communist Aiyetoro Community established in the 1940s in the Ilaje, coastal area of the former Western Nigeria. Otite adds that in the 1960s, authorities in the social sciences did not think the pro-equity experiment at Aiyetoro merited scholarly attention. Onoge’s adventurous and utopian spirit is exemplified in the title of his Ph. D dissertation, namely, “Aiyetoro, the Successful Utopia: A Sociological Study of the Holy Apostles Community in Nigeria”.
Whilst in the US Onoge was involved in a series of militant and radical social organizations including those that campaigned against the US war in Vietnam. He shared platforms with African Americans such as Stokeley Carmichael, Eldred Cleaver, George Jackson, and the South African musical maestro, Mariam Makeba. Onoge was also in the vanguard of the Federal side during the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra war, and the patriotic urge to be part of the programme of national reconstruction made him to return to Nigeria in 1969 immediately he submitted his Ph.D. project. We can say that with his arrival in the Faculty of the Social Sciences in Ibadan, Social Science discourse and indeed the University of Ibadan never remained the same again.
In 1970, the University of Ibadan was the leading light in intellectual work in West Africa, and the atmosphere of optimism and nationalism that grew from Nigerian victory over secession helped the ventilation of radical and anti-imperialist viewpoints. The milieu was also receptive to ideas of Socialism and Marxism, especially because the leading capitalist nations of the world, namely, USA, Britain and France abandoned Nigeria during the civil war. Surprisingly, it was the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its African ally, Egypt that offered Nigeria the military hardware and technical assistance to prosecute the war. Before this historic intervention of the USSR, socialist ideas and works were banned from circulation in Nigeria. Any vector of socialist and Marxist views was hounded, arrested, detained or deported if a foreigner. The likes of Michael Imoudu, Mayirue Kolagbodi, Eskor Toyo (alias the Lenin of Africa), Ola Oni and Baba Oluwide were the first academics to dare the conservative, neocolonial Nigerian government on this turf. But when the Soviet Union saved Nigeria from disintegration, the atmosphere became a little more hospitable for communist averters. This was the political and academic climate in which Onoge’s radicalism, nationalism, and Marxist ebullition manifested and flourished.
By the time Onoge arrived as Faculty member at Ibadan there were already seasoned scholars like Essien Udom and Billy Dudley both in Political Science, Ayo Ogunsheye, Ojetunji Aboyade and Comrade Ola Oni in Economics. Ola Oni’s forte was in Marxist political economy, having been trained at the London School of Economics (LSE). For some years he was almost a lone ranger as a Marxist thinker and a socialist activist. The entry of Onoge and Bade Onimode in this setting transformed the Faculty into what can be described as the intellectual secretariat of the social sciences in Nigeria, nay West Africa. There were also Busari Adebisi and Peter Ekeh both political scientists, and Akin Ojo, a nuclear physicist. By the mid 1970s, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie and Biodun Jeyifo in English extended the frontiers of Marxist scholarship and pedagogy. Laoye Sanda who studied under Onoge became the linchpin at the Ibadan Polytechnic. It was the patriotic and fearless commitment of these intellectual giants that repositioned Ibadan as a centre of radical thought and revolutionary visioning.
The path of a radical and militant scholar-activist had been blazed by Onoge’s predecessors in the Nigerian Marxist family. Dr. Mayirue Kolagbodi of Ughoton in Okpe area of Delta State was the first Urhobo to obtain a Ph. D degree in 1963. He returned from Leipzig, Germany, to start work as the Secretary to Comrade Michael Imoudu, Nigeria’s “Labour Leader Number One” from 1945. Professor Eskor Toyo who studied in Poland and Baba Oluwide (alias Baba Luwi, Baba Omojola, and Jagunmolu of Ijeshaland and Afenifere) also served as Secretaries to Imoudu. The formidable combination of these titans of labour and Marxist scholarship upgraded the ideological quotient of trade unionism as was evident in two post-independence general strikes in 1963 and 1964. Kolagbodi was Onoge’s mentor in this sphere and he never betrayed the heritage all through his years of gregarious engagement with the proletariat, peasants, youths, and the lumpen bourgeoisie in the country and Africa.
The New Left Movement
As already pointed out, the Marxist socialist movement in the academia in Ibadan was headed by Comrade Ola Oni and assisted by Onoge, Onimode and Ojo. Soon after the Nigerian civil war in 1970, the Ibadan group undertook a tour of the country to connect groups that had been scattered as a result of the war. In the East they met with Nkenna Nzimiro, Chinua Achebe, Chimere Ikoku, Okwudiba Nnoli, and Arthur Nwankwo who were then operating under the rubric of Frantz Fanon Centre. In Zaria, the New Left Movement interacted with members of Aminu Kano’s Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) such as Balarabe Musa, Abubakar Rimi, Baba Omojola (who was operating the Toilers’ Brigade in the Bohemian quarters in Kano), Bala Usman, Mahmud Turkur, Patrick Wilmot and other younger converts to Marxist humanism.
The New Left deleation also rallied support with the likes of Ebenezer Babatope at the University of Lagos, and with Segun Osoba, Seinde Arigbede, Toye Olorode, Idowu Awopetu, Biodun Adetugbo, Segun Adewoye, and Bayo Ademodi at the then University of Ife. The purpose of this nationwide mission was to galvanize resources for the formation of a socialist party that would participate in the politics of radical change that the end of the Nigerian civil war presaged and beckoned. In all of these engagements, Professor Omafume Onoge was the intellectual power house.
The University crisis of February 1971 that developed from the police murder of Kunle Adepeju, a student of the University of Ibadan, was the first opportunity for the New Left Movement to demonstrate its political will and relevance. The Socialist core of the academics sided with the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) then headed by Olu Adegboro. The socialist lecturers secured the services of a young and vibrant lawyer, now Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), to defend the students at the Justice Kazeem tribunal set up by the General Yakubu Gowon military junta. Onoge’s theoretical clarity on the question of class struggle and the necessity of popular alliance of the oppressed were brilliantly exhibited during the tribunal sitting. The intervention of the Marxist movement transformed the local, campus event to a national movement against military rule in favour of democracy. The posters the students produced called for probe of corrupt military governors and an immediate end to military maladministration and tyranny.
The political organization of Marxists which Ola Oni headed operated under the general platform of the Nigerian Academy of Arts, Sciences and Technology. It published a journal, Theory and Practice, and Onoge was the pioneer editor. One of Darah’s early articles “Igho sh’emu sua: Notes on Capitalist Ideology in Urhobo Oral Literature” appeared in the second edition of the journal in 1977. As Nigeria tottered chaotically to the first promised terminal point of military rule in 1974, the Academy produced The Nigerian People’s Manifesto. It is a 120-page document that derived its ideological insight from The Communist Manifesto of 1845 by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels which is ended with the insurgent summons: “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains”
The Nigerian Peoples Manifesto examines the terminal crisis of neocolonial capitalism in Nigeria and the imperative need to employ revolutionary constitutional reforms to establish a superior, socialist political and economic system. The preface to the document proclaims that the “Nigerian Peoples manifesto emanates from discussions with patriotic, anti-imperialist and progressive mass organizations of peasants, petty-traders, patriotic trade unions, tenants’ associations, social reformers, black nationalists, students and youth movements, young socialist organizations, Committee for African Revolution, and the New Left Movement. The Peoples Manifesto is a concrete response to the yearnings of the working people and patriotic forces for a programme of action to smash the politics of deceit, ethnicity and exploitation inflicted on our people by the old, corrupt, bourgeois politicians and their imperialist masters.” From the flourish of imagery, and the semantic and syntactical structure of the Manifesto, it is evident that Onoge was the editorial engineer in the drafting and production of that historic document. In 1975, the economic programme of the Manifesto was published and it was jointly authored by Comrade Ola Oni and Bade Onimode. The title was Economic Development in Nigeria: The Socialist Alternative.
One of the positive outcomes of the intervention of the radical intelligentsia in the nation’s politics was the rise of popular consciousness among young people, students and the working class. The generation of students’ leaders featured names such as Olori Magege of the University of Benin, Mohammed Sokoto, Mohammed Kungwai and Abdulrahman Black of the Ahmadu Bello University, (Zaria), Solomon Agunbiade (alias Chairman Mao for his luxuriant beards), Laoye Sanda, Olu Agunloye, Odia Ofeimun, Silas Zwingina (now a Senator), Olu and Banji Adegboro of the University of Ibadan, Edwin Madunagu and Segun Okeowo of the University of Lagos, and Ayo Olukotun of the then University of Ife. In spite of the three decades of corrupt, military maladministration, these names and their protégés still constitute the backbone of Nigeria’s patriotic and radical intelligentsia today.
A few more details on this development is pertinent at this point. As the radicalisation of the campuses intensified, the progressive students consolidated to form their own organizations. In 1970 there was only the Afro-Culture Society that offered alternative platform at Ibadan besides the bourgeois-liberal formations such as the Sigma Club that specialized in ostentatious carnivals and revelries. Ironically, their annual musical festival was tagged “Havana” probably in admiration of the capital of Castro’s Cuba. In the 1973 the Young Socialist Movement (YSM) emerged, with a later splinter called Black Nationalist Movement (BNM). A few years after, the socialist re-christened their group Marxist Students Movement (MSM) which started its journal, The Militant of which Darah was the pioneer editor. The successor editor was Jimi Adesina, one of Onoge’s students who is now a Professor at Rhodes University in South Africa. Those who seek the etymological roots of the term “militant” ought to interrogate these sources over three decades ago. The leadership of the radical students included two medical students who had turbulent experiences on account of their involvement; they were Komolu Johnson and Femi Bamiboye. The MSM later expanded to Ile-Ife and Zaria and was at the spearhead of activities organised by NUNS which became National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) in the aftermath of the 1978 General Obasanjo crackdown in campus radicalism.
The rising tempo of student and youth vanguardism across the country added vigour to revolts against military autocracy and barbarism and Onoge and his colleagues had busy schedules of public lectures, symposia, and media interactions. Those who passed through the portals of Ibadan in this dynamic decade still cherish the experience of intellectual delight of hearing and learning from the incisive and stimulating debates involving Onoge and other Marxist patriots.
The momentum of the 1970s under the intellectual motor of the Socialist academia culminated in the epic involvement of Nigeria in the anti-apartheid struggle in Southern Africa. The superlative quality of Nigeria’s intervention in that uprising was due largely to the pervasive influence of the revolutionary ideas of pan-Africanism and liberation from external domination. Professor Onoge and his colleagues were the indomitable vessels of the pedagogy of knowledge and education for liberation. In this new epistemology, Onoge edified students and staff with copious quotes from the works of Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Amilcar Cabral.
Thus the students’ movement that developed from this ferment was ideologically clear-headed and committed to radical change in Africa and Nigeria. It was for their struggle that Nigeria became acknowledged as a frontline state in the liberation of Southern Africa. In tribute to his genius in this regard, Onoge was on the Nigerian delegation to the Peoples Republic of China in 1976 along with Segun Osoba and Bala Usman. The team was headed by Major-General Henry Adefope, then the Minister of Youths and Sports. The purpose was to understudy the structure of education in China with a view to adopting it in Nigeria. This was the highest point of official recognition of the superiority of the socialist system, especially in the area of education, social mobilization, and youth orientation. It is pertinent to add that Nigeria’s involvement in the Southern African liberations struggles revamped the ideological purity of mass movements and popular agitations for change and justice. The cruelty of the decadent Portuguese colonial regime was etched in the minds of radicals and the youth and it was sweet victory for Africa when following a coup by pro-democracy military officers in Portugal in 1974, the liberation movements in Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola quickly won their independence from colonial bondage. The Nigerian student movement momorialised these achievements by adopting the Portuguese phrases of “Aluta continua; victoria a certe” (The struggle continues; victory is certain) for their campus activities.
Ironically, General Olusegun Obasanjo who, as military head of state from 1976-1979, was the prime beneficiary of this insurgent national youth movement, was the one that castrated the movement two years into his regime in 1978. In April 1978 there was mass students’ uprising against unwarranted increase in higher education cost. The action was led by this generation of militant Marxist students. During the students’ clashes with the Police, one student was killed at the University of Lagos and nine at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Onoge and his Marxist colleagues stood firmly with the students as they did in the 1971 and 1974 seasons of popular revolts against military dictatorship.
Yet, General Obasanjo, apparently acting a script from the Pentagon in America, wickedly and falsely accused the radical academia of instigating the students to overthrow his government. More unpardonably, Obasanjo alleged that the students were being used by the apartheid regime in South Africa to undermine Nigeria. Under the guise of this fabricated suspicion, the Obasanjo junta arbitrarily dismissed Onoge and others from the University system in August 1978. The casualty list of this fascist witchcraft included Comrade Ola Oni, Akin Ojo, Bade Onimode, Laoye Sanda (Ibadan), Ebenezer Babatope and Eddie Madunagu (Lagos), and Bene Madunagu and Ekpo Bassey Ekpo (Calabar). The NUNS then headed by Segun Okeowo of Lagos was proscribed and all the student leaders were banned from admission into any Nigerian University in the country. It was the resilience and tenacity of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that restored the victimized academics to their posts in 1981.
As it with most middle class professionals in Nigeria, the arbitrary sack of the socialist academics put many of them in temporary disarray. They had not worked long enough to save money to build homes. Only Ola Oni who had secured a university housing loan had a place of his own in Bodija area of Ibadan which he quickly converted into a printing press and the Progressive and Socialist Books Depot. The house also became the secretariat of the Socialist Party of Workers, Farmers and Youth (SPWFY) floated in 1978 as a left-wing platform for involvement in electoral politics as the military regime was about to disengage in 1979. Predictably, the Obasanjo military junta denied the party registration along with about 45 other associations, including that by the Nigerian revolutionary musical maestro, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
It is important to remark the “Winnie Mandela” role played by Ola Oni’s with, Kehinde and his four children in those hectic days of political mobilisation and alliances. Although Oni was the undisputed Vladimir Lenin of the movement, it was Kehinde who provided the necessary support and warm, generous reception and hosting for numerous visitors, comrades and ideological troubadours that thronged the Bodija house night and day. Managing Ola Oni’s extensive networks and restless schedule of work was a heavy burden on Kehinde and the family, a burden made more precarious by the regular police and security raids on the premises and the arrest and detention of Oni.
Schisms and differences amongst the leftists did not lighten the load of management.
The Oni/Ibadan section insisted on floating a Marxist-Leninist mass party in the orthodox tradition of revolutionary enterprises in Russia, Poland, Germany, France, Egypt, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Ghana, and South Africa. Some sections of the Left disagreed fiercely even after a tenuous agreement in favour of party formation had been made in Zaria in 1976. Onoge returned from Tanzania in 1977 to become embroiled in these sectarian controversies. Ethno-regional sentiments were at play in some instances. When the green light for parties was given by the military in 1978, the Oni/Ibadan group announced its Socialist Party of Workers, Farmers and Youth (SPWFY). Wahab Goodluck, Dapo Fatogun, and Dr. Lasisi Osunde who had strong links in the trade unions went their own way with Socialist Workers Party just as the Mallam Aminu Kano associates opted for the Peoples Redemption Party that saw the election of Balarabe Musa and Abubakar Rimi as governors of Kaduna and Kano states respectively. The Ife collective under Segun Osoba’s leadership chose to remain uninvolved and the survivors of the Biafran experience in Eastern Nigeria had not recovered enough to float an independent party platform. The split of socialist forces at this historical juncture was a drawback for progressive politics and the effects have not been completely erased. In the hostile, anti-socialist milieu of military rule, it was pretty difficult to carry on the mobilisation of the proletarian forces. The SPWFY later metamorphosed into the Socialist Revolutionary Vanguard (SRV) under Oni’s leadership. After his untimely death in 1999, the coordination of SRV rested on the joint shoulders of Dr. Yomi Jorge Ferreira and Baba Omojola in Lagos and Comrade Laoye Sanda in Ibadan.
Following his arbitrary sack in 1978, Onoge, as we have said, went home to Effurun in the then Bendel State where the ideas of Marxism and socialist work were largely unknown, if not demonised as crazy, foreign and subversive. Akin Ojo, Bade Onimode, and Laoye Sanda stayed back in Ibadan to engage in the party work. In his Effurun base Onoge had to live with his aged father since he did not have a house of his own yet. In Urhobo society, such a status is source of great embarrassment and snide comments against the returnee migrant. Yet Onoge recovered somewhat as Chief Ebenezer Babatope employed his links in the Obafemi Awolowo-led Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) to secure a teaching job for him at the then College of Education, Abraka. Professor Ambrose Folorunso Alli who also knew Onoge was the Governor of Bendel State at the time.
As the British dramatist William Shakespeare has written, “sweet are the uses of adversity. Thus Onoge won more home laurels. He married a new wife, Patience, later an attorney-at-law. His first marriage to a sociology scholar, Tola Pearse, had ended in divorce some years earlier. The couple had a daughter, Forabo, who was to have a First Class honours degree English in Ife in the 1980s and went to the United States to read law where she presently practises. With Patience, Onoge had four offspring – two male and two female.
The Jos Years
With the triumph of the ASUU’s industrial action in 1980-81, Onoge resumed as a Professor at the University of Jos in 1982, under the friendly headship of Professor J.I. Tseayo in the Department of Sociology. Onoge was to become Head of Department (1982-1989), and also Chairman of the University’s Consultancy Services, Dean of Postgraduate Studies (1989-1993), Director, Centre for Development Studies (1993-1994), and elected Member of the University Council (1995). During these years, Onoge brought in innovations and communitarian strategies which enhanced the status of the Social Sciences in particular and the University in general. Among his colleagues in the department were Dr. Iyorchia Ayu, former Senate President, and Professor Sylvester Ogoh Alubo. But Onoge’s twin brother in ideology at Jos was the Marxist political economist, Professor Peter Ozo-Eson in the Department of Economics. They were so adored for their forthrightness that they were able to beat Plateau indigenes in elections to university positions.
On his arrival in Jos Onoge quickly established fruitful rapport with the Urhobo community of miners and professionals who were very visible in the socio-economic landscape of the Plateau. With his aura of intellectualism, he rallied the community to set up the Emudiaga Club as an active vent for articulating Urhobo issues in the era of leadership tussle amongst ranks of the Urhobo Progress Union. With the active support of the likes of Chiefs William Adjekughele and the late Monorien Agbatutu, the Emudiaga Club organised the first-ever conference on Urhobo Culture and Language at the Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, in 1992. Onoge regularly acknowledged the kind assistance the Club received from his Urhobo College colleague, Chief Patrick Okitiakpe and others in the funding of the conference.
In the year 2000-2003, Onoge became the Executive Director of CASS, Port Harcourt. With Professor Peter Ozo-Eson as companion, Onoge inaugurated a new phase of administrative openness and transparency, relevant social science research and engagement with the critical institutions and political organizations of the Niger Delta. Through seminars, workshops, and global networking, Onoge elevated CASS to a status comparable to the Dakar-based CODESSRIA (Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa) where he was also a consultant. Onoge’s leadership of CASS brought him into the intellectual vanguard of the Niger Delta struggle with regular and positive interactions with frontline leaders of the Ijaw, Ogoni, Urhobo, Ibibio, Efik, Annang, Ogbia, Egenni, Isoko, Edo, Ukwuani/Ndokwa and other nations of the Niger Delta.
For example, on January 4 2003, Onoge, Ojaide, and Darah travelled to Ogoniland to join that year’s celebration of Ogoni Day. Through the six-hour drive, we engaged in impromptu and ecstatic discussions on culture, sang and analysed classical Udje songs, commented on the endangered environment and the need for the Urhobo people to construct strategic alliances with the Ogoni and other nations of the embattled Niger Delta. Our delegation was received by MOSOP President, Ledum Mitee and his executive and joint projects were agreed on. It was during that trip that we took a decision to establish the Urhobo Studies Association at Abraka to drive Urhobo scholarship and discourses. The Association started in 2003 and Onoge was active in its academic programmes throughout the six years. For the one decade that Onoge engaged in liberation politics with the Niger Delta nations and organizations, he endeared himself to all as a comrade, revolutionary and humanist. In all conferences, workshops, and political gatherings, Onoge’s voice boomed and resonated as his prodigious presence dazzled and puzzled many, including those on the opposite side of the political divide.
With this pedigree, Onoge’s choice as member of the Delta State delegation to the 2005 National Political Reforms Conference in Abuja was well deserved and ordained by reputation. In February, Governor James Onanefe Ibori attended the service of songs for the burial of Professor Frank Ukoli, the first Urhobo to attain that status. As soon as he sighted Onoge, he declared: “Prof, you will go for the conference” and the statement was greeted with robust applause. Chief Ibori had heard Onoge address audiences at Asaba, Warri, Benin, and Port Harcourt and he called him “firebrand professor”. The leader of the Delta delegation was Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, with Chief Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, Chief Ifeanyi Sylvester. Moemeke, Rear Admiral Mike Onah, and Professor Itse Sagay as members. A 10-member technical think tank headed by Engineer James Bukohwo Erhuero provided strategic backing.
At the conference Onoge’s deep grasp of political economy and his oratorical prowess thoroughly overawed the apostles of Northern Caliphate hegemony in Nigeria. He led the crucial debate on resource control and fiscal federalism at the conference. The memorandum submitted by Delta State sharply articulated the popular demand of the Niger Delta Region for increase in derivation from 13% to 50%. The stubborn resistance of resource-famished, but politically privileged parasite states in the north of Nigeria killed that opportunity for the democratic renewal of Nigeria. But Professor Onoge and members of the Niger Delta delegations returned to the welcome of heroes and heroines in the Region.
The same robust energy and unswerving egalitarian philosophy guided Onoge’s participation in the activities of the South-South Leaders and Elders Forum under the aegis of Chief Clark. In the work of the Ledum Mitee-headed Niger Delta Technical Committee set up by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2008, Onoge was a prolific resource person and brilliant communicator. He headed the committee that prepared the U. P. U. memorandum for the Technical Committee which advocated the creation of an Urhobo State as the most reliable vehicle to guarantee the Urhobo people a place of honour and relevance in Nigeria and Africa in the 21st century.
Pioneering Marxist Sociology of African Literature
In the 1972-1973 academic session, Onoge handled one of the largest postgraduate courses in Harvard University as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Social Relations. He used the course to aggregate the various theoretical viewpoints and nuances on revolutionary social change from Frederick Douglass of the United States of America to Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. He always told us that teaching that course was one of the most fulfilling experiences of his career, and his reading list for the course had about 200 titles.
It was at Harvard that he published his path-breaking paper on literature, “The Crisis of Consciousness in Modern African Literature: A Survey”, which is probably the most quoted essay on African letters and justifiably so. This 30-page essay established the canons of radical and Marxist interpretation of arts, artists, and the consumers of their works. The essay correctly identifies the political and ideological influences that have shaped African written literature in the past 100 years. Onoge gives the primacy of place to anti-imperialist and pro-liberation writers such as Aime Cesaire, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Alex La Guma, and the younger generation of African writers emerging in the early 1970s.
Needless to say that the perspective of the essay was to influence critical temper and creative output from the 1980s as borne out in the post-1980s works of Timothy Aluko, Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, J.P. Clark, Soyinka, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ola Rotimi, Zulu Sofola, and Buchi Emecheta. The next generation of writers benefited positively from Onoge’s intervention and that of notable critics such as Chinweizu, Jeyifo and Ngugi. The radical orientation is palpable in the writings of Femi Osofisan, Akinwumi Isola, Niyi Osundare, Festus Iyayi, Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, Bode Sowande, Tunde Fatunde, Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Olu Obafemi, Funso Ayejina, Abubakar Gimba, Harry Garuba, Remi Raji, Ogaga Ifowodo, Zainab Alkali, Tess Osonye Onwueme and others. In the wider African context, the Marxist literary canon of socialist realism radically redefined the aesthetics of works by Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Arnah, and Kofi Ayindoho of Ghana and Njabulo Ndebele of South Africa.
Perhaps we should add that Soyinka’s tragic plays were severely, and sometimes recklessly criticised the Leftists for their idiomatic density and un-dialectical affirmation of immutable African beliefs and worldview. Soyinka never spares anyone who misunderstands him, particularly those who invoke non-African systems; yet he had tremendous respect and admiration for Onoge and his Marxist views.
Onoge’s fame rests also in the dialectical way he domesticated or Africanised the Marxist epistemology in artistic creativity and criticism. The genesis of the debate goes back to the 19th century in Europe with Marx and Engels and it was revived in the 1920s with the rise of radical writers and dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht of Germany. After the Russian revolution in 1917, Leon Trotsky and Georg Plekhanov expanded the application of the paradigm. In the 1940s the Frankfurt School that developed around Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse introduced more controversies, especially with mediation influences of technology. The English pioneers were Christopher Caudwell, George Thompson and Raymond Williams. Terry Eagleton was to emerge much later. The Bulgarian, Ernst Fischer published his The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach in the early 1960s and Adolfo Sanchez Vasquez followed in the early 1970s. But African literature was excluded from the pale of this aesthetic quarry until Onoge broke the myth with his 1974 seminal essay. This essay and his “Towards a Marxist Sociology of African Literature” served as the theoretical anchor of Georg Gugelberger’s edited Marxism & African Literature (1985).
Attending Onoge’s classes of Sociology of Literature offered an intellectual feast that was not available in other disciplines in the University. His compulsory background reading also featured works by Fanon such as The Wretched of the Earth, A Dying Colonialism, and Toward the African Revolution. Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism was another, so was Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Homecoming essays. For full-fledged Marxist theories there were Frederich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, and Mao Tse-tung’s Talks at Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. The oft-quoted passage from Marx was “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.” This was the ideological mantra that we all committed to memory. Everyone mentored by Onoge found it irresistible and respectable to cite Mao’s “Work of literature and art, as ideological forms, are products in the human brain of the life of a given society”.
Nearly all passages of Fanon were quotable but the ones easily remembered and dissected in class were “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”; “No man can truly wish for the spread of African culture if he does not give practical support to the creation of the conditions necessary to the existence of that culture; in other words, to the liberation of the whole continent” and “To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material touchstone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle”. The popular political quote from Mao was “imperialists are paper tigers” which demystified the military power of Western imperialist nations like the United States, Britain, France, and Japan which terrorized Third World peoples for decades.
strength of the reputation of Onoge’s
course of the Sociology of African Literature at Ibadan, he was invited
inaugurate a similar programme at the University of Dares Salaam in
He was away in Tanzania when the Festival of Black and African Arts and
(FESTAC) took place in Lagos in February 1977. In December 1977, Onoge,
Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Kole Omotoso, Femi Osofisan and the rest of us
academics, later known as the Ibadan-Ife Group, hosted a conference
Perspectives in African Literature”. The emergence of this group
growing division amongst Nigerian literary scholars, the radicals
conservatives or the bourgeois as we called them. In conference after
conference, the two tendencies engaged in robust exchanges which helped
inspire new techniques of writing and literary criticism. Professor
surely the intellectual general of the left wing literary scholars.
Marxists, Activists and Guerrillas
In the early 1970s our images of revolution and guerrillas were drawn from foreign lands such as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Haiti and Cuba. By the mid 1970s African examples became handy with victories of anti-colonial armies in Mozambique, Guinea, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. But their guerrilla armies were patterned after that of China which needed heavy human capital arsenal. In 1953, the Moncada insurgents in Cuba had introduced the small and ideologically focused variety. After the triumph of the Cuban socialists in 1959, Che Guevara came to the Congo in 1965 to initiate a similar forest-based, micro-guerrilla type. The experiment failed but the memory remained as seen in the 12-day uprising by Isaac Adaka Boro’s all-Ijaw guerrilla outfit that struck in February 1966. The marvellous feats of the African guerrilla armies saved the Nigerian Marxist the embarrassing butt of bourgeois cynics who used to tease them with the quibble: “where are your peasant armies of revolution?”
The temporary resolution of the apartheid and capitalist crisis in Southern Africa from the 1980s dimmed the prospects of this phenomenon somewhat. But insurgent gangs later sprouted in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Sudan. But Nigerians never imagined that their land would ever foster such revolutionary military formations. This illusion was burst asunder in the 1990s with the arrival on the scene of radical ethnicity-based movements such as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (NOSOP), the Ijaw National Congress INC), the Ijaw Youth Council, and other environment-focused groups like Environmental Rights Action initiated by Comrade Oronto Douglas and colleagues.
The Federal government colluded with the multinational oil companies such as Shell to crack down on peaceful protests, leading to the government murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni patriots in 1995. In October 1998, a burst petroleum pipe fire killed about 1,000 villagers in Idjerhe (Jesse) in Delta State. The government sadistically denied assistance and compensation. On December 11, the Ijaw Youth Council launched the Kaiama Declaration at Boro’s birthplace which set the tone for militant advocacy of resource control and fiscal federalism. In November 1999, Obasanjo’s civilian regime sent armed troops to demolish Odi claiming to be in pursuit of criminals. After these holocausts, the idiom and direction of revolt against oil companies and local colonial exploiters changed radically in favour of militancy and armed guerrilla politics.
When Onoge returned to the Niger Delta in 2000, the social ecology of struggle had altered. As the late Ugandan poet, Okot p’Bitek once wrote, oil-corrupted Nigeria had become a country where the pythons of uhuru (independence) had devoured the weak and oppressed classes and resource-rich minority nations of the Niger Delta. The vocabulary of “local colonial exploiters”, “resource control”, “liberation” and “emancipation” had become popular and ennobling to use and hear. The most edifying experience for Onoge as a revolutionary sociologist was the domestication and re-invention of the phenomenon of small, mobile, technology-guided, almost invisible and ubiquitous guerrilla formations. The country’s profit-driven mass media that would not publicise views antagonistic to the government’s had become zealous in reporting and quoting unedited and anonymous e-mail communiqués of these unknown and unknowable groups. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) epitomizes this phase of dialectical and historical materialism. Three weeks after Onoge’s death, the name Urhobo Revolutionary Army entered the lexicon of liberation visioning in the Niger Delta.
Not to be ignored is the influence of global events and insurgent movements against the monster of Western, capitalist imperialism typified by the United States. Thanks to the revolution in digital communication, the Al Qaeda group of Osama Bin Laden demystified the awesome power of the United States on September 11, 2001, with the bombing of the Manhattan heartland of global capitalism in New York. The world was awaken from its slumber of post-Cold War Western monopoly of the weapons of mass destruction. Welcome to the 21st century; welcome to the age of digital communication where the power of knowledge and ideology overwhelms that of sheer number and wealth.
The ramifications of these historic events were well absorbed by change advocates in Nigeria and the Niger Delta. Soon after the return of electoral politics in Nigeria in 1999, inter-ethnic clashes and religion-fuelled riots caused mayhem in many populous cities such as Kano, Kaduna, Jos, Bauchi, Lagos, Shagamu, and Ilorin. The upsurge of fanatical Islamic sects like Sharia in some northern states nearly made Nigeria ungovernable. Whilst Onoge was in Jos for 20 years, there were frequent bloody feuds between ancestral natives of the Plateau State and migrants from other ethno-national regions. In November 2008, the most horrendous of these upheavals occurred in Jos and hundreds were killed.
When the federal government gendarmes code-named Joint Task Force (JTF) invaded and destroyed oil-rich Ijaw communities of Gbaramatu area of Delta State in May 2009, Nigeria’s electronic media shut out their viewers from the horror scenes but the progressive Arab television Aljazeera aired them to audiences of billions across the world. With the Gbaramatu show of state violence, Onoge and other interpreters of the unfolding drama of radical changes knew that the Nigerian ruling class would no longer disguise its imperial agenda of subjugating the Niger Delta for oil profits to flow uninterrupted. Vladimir Lenin, the first president of the Soviet Union (1917-1924) had written that a revolutionary situation breaks out when the oppressed masses refuse to be governed in the old ways.
Two weeks before Onoge’s demise, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua announced a controversial amnesty programme for so-called militants of the Niger Delta. It was the first time that the Nigerian ruling oligarchy acknowledged that the masses of the region were no longer prepared to be ruled in the old, unjust and exploitative ways. For Onoge and Nigerian Marxists the world is undergoing the recurring osmosis of permanent revolution as predicted by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Nkrumah many decades earlier. Much more fulfilling for Onoge in the twilight years was the realization by us that the Niger Delta has assumed the historical position of being the locomotive of the Nigerian revolution for justice, equity, and emancipation from the local colonial bondage superintended by the Caliphate-dominated ruling class.
In the Middle East the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its Western allies was deteriorating into another Vietnam debacle. President Saddam Hussein of Iraq had been tried in a kangaroo court and condemned to death by hanging. Yet insurgency did not abate as suicide bombers and urban guerrilla outfits continued to torment the invaders and their Iraqi comprador agents daily, resulting in heavy human fatalities. In neighbouring Iran, an anti-imperialist regime stood out stoutly against terror threats from the capitalist West that hypocritically called for free and fair elections whilst their nations enjoyed excellent relations with Saudi Arabia where no elections are ever held. And so the world did not stand still. The first major capitalist economic depression in 70 years deceptively christened financial meltdown was ravaging the profit vaults of speculators in the United States and other free enterprise nations. Frightened of what Karl Marx once described as the common ruin of all, the United States abandoned its rank racism temporarily and elected Barrack Hussein Obama the first black African American as President.
This was a political earthquake of sorts which made Onoge reminisce exultingly about the long history of struggle African Americans from the era of Nat Turner, William Delany, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, William Du Bois, Jesse Owens, Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, to the generation of Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, James Brown, and Jesse Jackson. On January 20 2009 the Delta Diaspora Association gathered at the Godatin Hotel bar in Enerhen area of Warri to celebrate the inauguration ceremony of President Obama. Onoge was not strong enough to attend but he sent word to salute the heroic triumph of Obama, adding that it was one chapter in the long revolution to free humanity from the barbarism of capitalism and racism.
Return to the Source Credo
Amilcar Cabral is credited with this concept which he distilled from his experience as the President of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). By “return to the source” he meant the necessity for the revolutionary, educated but alienated elite to make deliberate effort to reconnect with his or her cultural roots which are preserved in the people’s folklore, arts and history. Aime Cesaire from Martinique had celebrated this mental reorientation in his classical Negritude poem, Return to My Native Land (1934). It was echoed in the works of Alejo Carpentier and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba years later. To the summons of return to the source Cabral added a more difficult challenge for the educated elite, namely, to “commit class suicide” by deliberately disengaging from the petty bourgeois comforts of city life and joining with the peasants and urban poor to fight for liberation from oppression and exploitation. Many world revolutionaries had to do this. Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky of Russia adopted anonymous names to shield themselves from the watch and wrath of fascist czars. During the 20-year long guerrilla fight for national liberation, Mao Tse-tung of China gave out his children to unknown peasant farmers to save him form the burden of parental sentiments. In Nigeria, Eskor Toyo changed his Oron name; Ola Oni was Oladapo Oniororo in his King’s College days in Lagos in the 1940s.
In our estimation, Onoge went farther than others in his emersion in the return to the source cultural renewal. His rural background in Urhobo set the pace and he consolidated it with his academic training in agriculture and social anthropology. During his field work days in Aiyetoro Christian community, he offered free teaching to children and adults and he was adoringly called “Moses” for this and his luscious beards reminiscent of Karl Marx’s. Onoge’s studies in anti-imperialism and African literature further honed his pro-people outlook. He was humble, polite, polished, charitable, compassionate and ornate in his baritone voice that charmed even adversaries of his ideological passion.
Onoge also experienced the transition of cultural return to the sources in other unorthodox ways. One was his gradual recognition of the intrinsic values of traditions and their innovative use to promote egalitarian consciousness and societal renewal. Take the instance of his integration into the local structures of royal and monarchical affairs. In our age as starry-eyed revolutionaries, we Marxists scorned anything having to do with feudal or traditional power systems. The image of feudalism we harboured then was taken from classical Marxist literature derived from the history of that class in European nations in the pre-French and pre-Russian revolutions. Feudal monarchs and their armies were notorious for blood-thirsty excesses, plunder and disinheritance of peasant producers and conquered territories. We carried these horrid images into the African scene and thus exhibited antagonism towards all manifestations and symbols of non-democratic dispensations.
As Onoge returned to his Urhobo and Niger Delta cultural sources, he gradually began to lower his sights as the Angolan liberation fighters used to say. One of his students became a king in the ancient community of Erohwa in Isoko area of Delta State. The new king showed appreciation for his former teacher and conferred the title of “Ugo of Erohwa” on Onoge. In the early 2000s, his own Uvwie Kingdom also honoured him with another chieftaincy title and the Marxist Professor became a “Double Chief” as local parlance has it in the Niger Delta. But he was not fussy about these new images of local nobility and class distinction. He had adopted his family’s cognomen of “Agadagba” (generalissimo) which is also common in the Ijaw areas of Gbaramatu and Egbema of the western Niger Delta. On account of his reputation as a fearless speaker, he had invented for himself the tell-tale sobriquet of “Oyivwinta” (Fearless Orator). Whenever his associates wanted to humour him, they would invoke the full panoply of names thus: (Double Chief Professor, the Ugo of Erohwa, and the Agadagba and Oyivwinta of Ugborikoko!” Fun-sharing was one of Onoge’s cultural gifts.
Onoge underwent other forms of cultural renewal and re-integration. His father was a celebrated composer and entertainer in the Uvwie Ighovwan oral song-poetry of social commentary and moral control. Although we never saw Onoge on a dance floor, he had nostalgic memories of the Ighovwan carnivals performed annually by all seven communities of the Uvwie state of Urhobo at the waterfront theatre of Ohworhu temple in the Ekpokpo (Ephro/Effurun) metropolis. The deluge of urbanization in Effurun from the 1940s had drowned all channels of folk cultural expression such as Ighovwan and kindred art forms. But Onoge was excited to find a similar aesthetic system in Udje of the Ughievwen and Udu people to the east of Uvwie. Nigeria’s national poet laureate J. P. Clark had opened scholarly studies into Udje repertoire in the mid 1960s. Darah did his doctoral thesis on the Udje genre in 1982 and David Okpako and Tanure Ojaide have extended the studies.
Onoge was enamoured of Udje satirical song-poetry not only for its sheer metaphorical elegance but also for the themes and social discourses of pre-capitalist Urhobo society. Onoge enthusiastically drew illustrative material from the Udje texts for his analysis of rural poverty, emerging class polarization fostered by the oil economy, and residues of egalitarian and communitarian consciousness embedded in them. One of his favourite numbers was the “Noruayen” song from David Okpako’s Owahwa community, a ballad that explores the tragic end of a young and hardworking man who died in the process of scooping discarded palm oil thrown into the waterways by European merchants. In Noruayen’s fate, Onoge detected that of millions of Africans whose destinies were destroyed by rampaging, predatory capitalism. Yet another memorable piece for him was “Fraimu”, an Orhunghworun song on a robustly built female paragon who was instigated to engage in extra-conjugal sexual affairs by a husband who always travelled in search of wealth and fortune. If ever Onoge was ill or in foul mood and you sang these songs to him, his vitality was fired instantly. That was Onoge for you, the scholar and connoisseur of culture and high aesthetic taste.
The June 12, 1993, Volcano and its aftermath
Onoge was already about 10 years in Jos when the volcanic eruptions of the 1993 June 12 protests for the restoration of the election victory of M. K. O. Abiola paralysed Nigeria. The military regime of Babangida did not allow Abiola to rule but the storms of the country-wide protests and street matches helped to warn the military dictators to finally leave power in 1998. The June 12 years of struggle were coordinated by the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) in which veterans like Michael Ajasin, Alfred Rewane, Anthony Enahoro, Alani Akirinade, Wole Soyinka, John Oyegun, and Gani Fawehinmi played pivotal roles. Throughout the five years of social upheaval and heavy-handed reprisals by the desperate military, Onoge was involved in numerous interventions at public debates and platforms. The oil workers pro-June 12 strike of 1994 excited him exceedingly and all through his life he venerated Comrade Frank Ovie Kokori and his militant colleagues for daring fascist General Sani Abacha in his den of coup makers. With his associate Ozo-Eson and their leftist friends in the north of the country they joined forces with all segments of the Nigerian labour movement and the gregarious human rights organisations to advance the cause of the pro-democracy uprising that opened the political space for bourgeois electoral contests from 1998.
Onoge tenaciously supported governors James Ibori of Delta State and D. S. P. Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa State and the other Niger Delta governors and legislators in the agitation for resource control and fiscal federalism from 2000-2007. He was a regular guest lecturer in their events. Until the last moments, Onoge maintained steadfast alliance with the progressive segments of the Nigerian petty bourgeois political class, from the days of Aminu Kano, Obafemi Awolowo, Ambrose Alli, Abubakar Rimi, Balarabe Musa, Solomon Lar through Ahmed Bola Tinubu to Comrade Adams Oshiomhole. A few days after Oshiomhole was restored by the courts to the governor’s saddle in Edo State, Onoge visited him in Benin even when he was already frail in health.
Effurun and Capitalist Primitive Accumulation
Again, for Onoge, there was even an earlier more edifying return to the source event in his Effurun area of Delta State. This was the 1986 Ekpan Women’s revolt against oppression and exploitation by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) and their cohorts in Uvwie Kingdom and the Niger Delta. The post-civil war boom in the oil economy of the 1970s had brought petro-dollar wealth to the Warri-Effurun metropolis which is the commercial and industrial epicentre of the western Niger Delta. Most of the oil industries and institutions destined for the zone were hosted by Effurun that had more land to spare for gigantic enterprises and residential properties. The Warri Refining and Petrochemical Company ant the Petroleum Training Institute (PTI) came in 1977 and the Nigerian Gas Company opened in 1980. Oil service firms, contractors and foreign personnel followed and boosted the real estate business. The road networks had to be extended into hitherto arable land and green belts. In late 1970s, the Nigerian government built a 30-kilometre dual carriage road to connect the Warri ports with the Delta Steel Oil Company, Ovwian-Aladja, Africa’s largest direct steel reduction plant. Military barracks and pipelines consumed more farm lands. All these developments chopped swathes of arable land, much of which was obtained in violation of the principles of equity and economic justice. In 10 years Effurun or Uvwie people had lost their most precious economic resource.
Thus emerged the strange situation of the first section of Urhobo territory having landless peasants. The trauma was devastating, especially as the management of the oil industry in neocolonial Nigeria has no exit points for victims. As the natives and migrants were chased into disease-infested slum dwellings and lumpen existence, social tensions and violent crimes rose in frequency and intensity. A thriving community of migrant sex workers, pimps, gamblers, and itinerant traders sprang up on the northern corridor of Effurun metropolis between the military barracks and the highway to Sapele. It was appropriately called “Maroko”, being the name of the notorious ghetto in Lagos which greedy military officers and latifundists forcefully occupied and chased away the residents into homelessness in the 1980s. The Effurun “Maroko” was eventually demolished not to provide alternative and healthier tenement but because the slum community was sitting on the path of gigantic pipes that convey crude oil and gas to processing facilities and export terminals on the Atlantic Ocean. Up to the early years of the 21st century, Effurun was jeeringly referred to as the host of hardened criminals and political goon squads which often clashed with casualties and fatalities. Armed gangs of motor park touts would stage combats to test their arsenal of lethal weapons or the popularity of their leaders. Yet the majority of the miscreants who lived so precariously were not natives of Uvwie or Urhobo but migrants from other distressed areas of Nigeria and West Africa. But all the opprobrium and caustic commentaries blamed the problem on Uvwie youths.
For Onoge and his generation of Uvwie patriots, an old order had collapsed without compensatory remedies. In one of his outraged articles on the crisis of primitive capitalist accumulation, he described the Effurun area as a place where smoke-chocked brothels litter the landscape like smallpox. His native land had become an empirical proof of Frantz Fanon’s prediction that the national bourgeoisie of the newly independent countries would have no better thing to do than to turn their cities to brothels for European tourists. And the description is apt because a 2006 census of hotels and guest houses showed that there were about 100 within the geographical space of about 150 square kilometres. A similar density was recorded for churches and miracle centres; there were about 350 churches in the Warri-Effurun metropolis is 2006. By the time Onoge died, the figure would have risen much higher as the socio-economic causes of the aggressive evangelism had not changed. Comrade Onoge the erstwhile Marxist atheist and Africanist lived long enough to witness the manifestation of Karl Marx’s 19th century statement that “religion is the opium of the poor masses” which induces them to dream of living in post-humous paradise having been denied the earthly one by capitalist exploiters and ruling classes. In fact, one Pentecostal church bought the piece of land directly behind Onoge’s villa in Ugborikoko and the ecstatic drumming, singing, dancing by the worshippers denied the Onoge’s the legitimate right to peace and quietude. This was the ultimate experience of the effect of the religious opium and Comrade Onoge had to take drastic steps to buy off the plot of land and the new “miracle centre” relocated elsewhere in the “mighty name of Jesus!”
In August 1986, the Ekpan women who suffered more land loss than others did better than reflect in lucid writings. After their plea to the NNPC for offer job places and menial economic engagements were ignored, the women resorted to the tradition mechanism of mass protest in Urhobo as they took over the oil facilities and entire traffic routes in Effurun, including the major highways from the Benin-Sapele and Ughelli-Port Harcourt ends. Chaos and pandemonium followed for days as armed security contingents hounded the protesting women to retreat, though in dignity. These Amazons of Uvwie are honoured till this day for doing what the men folk had been unable to handle. Yet Uvwie people, like the Ogoni of Eleme area of Rivers State, have remained landless hosts of multinationals oil giants and real estate owners ever since. The land hunger in Uvwie Kingdom is so severe that Onoge had to buy land to build his villa in his natal Ugborikoko in the 1980s. This is one reason why the Onoge funeral committee has scheduled a symposium for August 25, the 23rd year of the Ekpan women’s revolt against injustice in the oil industry.
Death where is thy sting?
Any one who lives up to 70 years plus in poorly governed Nigeria is not strange to tragic events and Onoge was no exception. In the late 1990s, he suffered the untimely death of his immediate younger brother, Owens Onoge who attained the rank of a Commissioner of Police. It was Professor Onoge who sponsored Owens’ university education while he was pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States. Barely two years after, Onoge’s lawyer spouse and compassionate partner also passed away prematurely. These twin-bunched experiences had a toll on Onoge’s emotions and resilience. But he soldiered on tenaciously, giving all he had to the revolution in process. We recall one instance of his display of heroic endeavour in the face of daunting domestic problems. In February 1978, his caring and adorable wife, Patience, was terminally ill and on admission at the University Teaching Hospital, Ibadan. But indomitable Onoge managed to write and deliver a first-rate keynote address at the Nigeria-South Africa conference on “Democratic Transitions in Africa” at the Federal Palace Hotels, Lagos. A few days after he returned to Ibadan, Patience, his lovely and comradely wife died.
It was truly a difficult moment for Onoge, their four young children, his brother Tuesday, friends and associates. A year later, Onoge was to recall this trauma with consummate communist humour when Darah led the Nigerian delegation to the second edition of the bilateral conferences in Pretoria, South Africa. The experience was all the more significant for Onoge as he shared platforms and robust banter with President Thabo Mbeki in relaxed and convivial occasions. The Nigerian delegation included notable scholars such as Professor Adebayo Adedeji, former Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, Professor Jerry Gana then Minister of African Integration, Professor Jadesola Akande, former Vice-Chancellor of Lagos State University, Professor Bade Onimode, Professor Joy Ogwu of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Baba Oluwide, United Nations economic consultant, and the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mrs. Priscillia Kuye. For Onoge and others, the interaction with Mbeki was a lifetime experience that time could not diminish.
Last Moments Before Silence
A few of Onoge’s last academic outings deserve recalling as we round-off this tributary account. The March 2008 “Darah @ 60 International Conference” that was held at the Wellington Hotel, Effurun, offered him fresh space to enlighten and dazzle his peers in the literary and pro-democracy constituencies who had converged from many universities in Nigeria and abroad. He was a keynote speaker and he chose to address the topic of “When Sociology Invaded Literature at Ibadan”. With considerable difficulty he was able to reminisce on the stormy days when the leftist and bourgeois writers and critics clashed at debates and conferences before the storm of military fascism scattered progressive lecturers and patriots from the country’s Ivory Towers. On August 6 of the same year the Urhobo Studies Association hosted the second edition of the memorial event in honour of Oshue Ogbiyerin and the 1927 anti-tax revolt in Warri Province. The event which was held at Abraka combined that of the 60th anniversary of the death of Chief Mukoro Mowoe of Urhobo, the venerated Nelson Mandela of the western Niger Delta in the 1940s. Onoge chaired the presentations and dance display sessions that lasted for nearly six hours.
His very last memorable academic engagement was in the first quarter of 2009. The Uvwie King, His Royal Majesty, Abe I and the Uvwie Traditional Council of which Onoge was a member requested him to prepare a prospectus on how to safeguard Uvwie culture and language from extinction in the face of overwhelming migrant pressure and neocolonial modernisation. Though weak and handicapped in ambulation, Professor Onoge held the audience spell-bound for over four hours during which he provided scientific analysis and multi-media remedies for the preservation of Uvwie culture and civilization. In retrospect, that presentation and the thunderous applause that greeted it would serve as a fitting farewell to one of Africa’s most distinguished Marxist intellectuals.
his condition did not improve with medication, Onoge kept on the
liberate the Niger Delta and Nigeria. He had hoped that he would regain
health and write his memoirs. But this was not to be. After fruitless
several hospitals and clinics in Nigeria financial assistance came from
Government of Delta State for treatment overseas. He was to flown India
a cure for a malignant ailment apparently caused by a spine injury he
Jos many years before. On July 12, 2009, Professor Comrade Omafume
passed on into blissful Elysium of haloed ancestors. As Urhobo
it, “AKPO RE-E: Life is an endless
continuum and renewal”. And so it will be with our Onoge.
Omafume Onoge in his
Professor Darah and Dr..Awhefeada
are of the Department
of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka, Delta