The story of a strong man’s journey in an unjust world

(First published in LEADERSHIP SUNDAY, March 1, 2009, page 64)

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By ANIEBO NWAMU

Nsukka, the peaceful town that hosts the nation’s first indigenous university, was saved from a conflagration that could have consumed hundreds of lives in the early afternoon of Monday, February 9. Except for those who saw a man scaling a fence and running with his shirt in flames, however, the major event of that day has passed largely unnoticed. The unsung hero, who ultimately saved many, was a decent businessman and politician, Mr Fidelis Oguejiofor Ozota.

That Monday afternoon, Ozota had sauntered into the premises of a company that deals in the distribution of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) – a flammable, volatile, colourless liquid that transforms to gin when mixed with water – in the heart of Nsukka, behind Peace Park. He used to help out whenever a tanker was to offload the product, having marketed it for more than six years in towns like Onitsha, Obollo-Afor and Nsukka. That was after the collapse of Allied Bank of Nigeria where he served as a banking officer until 1996. He was hired in Lagos and posted to Onitsha in 1992.

While ethanol was being pumped from the tanker into drums, Ozota discovered that the siphon was leaking somewhere. He used his finger to seal the leaking part. The liquid, flowing with great speed, splashed all over his body and on the exhaust pipe of a generator used to power the pumping machine. The pipe caught fire immediately, as did Ozota’s shirt and trousers. Unmindful of his own suffering, he promptly switched off the tap before scaling a fence, apparently because the entrance to the premises was already in flames. Had he not turned off the tap, said eyewitnesses, the entire tanker would have exploded in flames and burnt multitudes waiting to board mass transit buses nearby. One or two filling stations, several banks, and the Nsukka Main Market would not have been spared by the inferno.

Ozota, 47, had saved the day for many, but the battle for his own life had just begun. With his clothes burning, and not easily within reach of those struggling to help with fire extinguishers, he eventually made it, partly on foot and partly on motorbike, to the Bishop Shanahan Hospital, about 700 metres away. At the hospital, he received the first aid before his younger brother Emma, a senior nurse, and other relations insisted that he be transferred to the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Enugu.

It was while they were on the way to Enugu, some 70km away, that I received the first call announcing the calamity. Later that day and the day after, I was able to speak with Ozota himself, thanks to our sister Vero and Emma who, I guess, promptly put their phones to his ear so we could hear each other. “What happened?” I asked him. “It was a fire accident,” he said, “as I was transferring ethanol.”

We spoke regularly while he was in the orthopaedic hospital. I asked him how he felt and how he was being treated. He acknowledged the pains he was feeling, adding that his appearance then was like that of the biblical Lazarus after he was raised from the dead by Jesus.

That week was like no other. I left Abuja on Wednesday, February 11, hoping to participate in the burials and funerals of two other friendly cousins of mine, Mrs Eugenia Ugwuanyi, nee Nwonu (45) and Mr Malachi Ogbonne (40), slated for Friday, February 13. Anxious to see Ozota first before returning home to Nsukka, I went straight to Enugu and to the Trauma department of the orthopaedic hospital. For most of the one hour-plus I spent in the hospital, he was asleep. Whenever he awoke, however, he told me “welcome”. Truly, he appeared like an illustration (in the Children’s Bible) of Lazarus waking from the dead. His entire body except his face was wrapped in bandages. “His face was the only part spared by the chemical,” Vero told me. “His skin started peeling off.”

I did not espy any danger or the threat posed by peeling skin, for my knowledge of medicine was limited. But when a nurse at the hospital mentioned that he had first-degree burns, my curiosity heightened. I offered to sleep over but Vero, Bernadine and Emma who were by his bedside objected. Before I made my exit, Ozota thanked me, regretting that he had been “confined to this place”. While inside a bus that took me back to Nsukka, I imagined the pains this friend of 30 years was going through. The thought wouldn’t let me sleep. And, between about 2am and dawn my eyes remained open.

Sister Vero was to tell me what was happening at the same time in Enugu. From 10pm, just a few hours after I had left, the illness worsened. The drugs being administered to him became useless. At about 3am, he asked to speak with me on the phone but the request was not granted. When I called Vero about 6am on Thursday, she said they refused to call me because he was restless and they did not want him to lose more energy by talking on the phone. They did not sleep all through the night.

By 8am, Thursday, I was at the Ozotas’ home on the New Anglican Road, Nsukka, to calm his wife Dorothy. I told her he was doing very well when I saw him and that the accident was not a life-threatening one. Two other sympathisers who were with her later left and I was alone with her when a phone call came from Vero. “Ralph [my name also], stop Emma at the park so you people can take a decision as to what to do with Fide…” I didn’t turn off my phone and so heard her weeping.

Dorothy had not heard the caller. I looked in her direction and told her I would leave but would be back. She said she wanted to visit the chapel (to pray), but I told her to remain indoors until I got back. Then, I drove a few metres away to meet Mr Alpho Nweze who had received a similar call from Vero. He said he suspected Fide had died because he too had heard her crying.

The world came crashing on me. Everything and everyone turned red to me. It’s all over!

A few minutes later, we were at the Bishop Shanahan Hospital. Emma had arrived. Vero had also called him while he was in a bus, on his way to deliver Fide’s message to the chairman and vice chairman of Nsukka local government.

It soon became official: Ozota, the helper and hero, had quit the world stage around 7.30am on Thursday, February 12, at the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Enugu. An ambulance hired at Nsukka brought his body to the morgue at the Shanahan hospital that afternoon.

Mobile phones spread the news of Ozota’s demise throughout the world. Many, expressing shock and fear, flocked to his home village in Lejja on Tuesday, February 17, to pay their last respects to a strong man whose integrity was unassailable. His remains were interred in his family’s compound, in the presence of his parents, his wife and five children. Thousands of other mourners shed streams of tears.

Born in the same month and year as United States President Obama, Ozota had a calling in politics. He analysed political issues and events in a way that confounded ordinary beings. He held strong views that were difficult to fault. He was a master strategist on whom many depended for political ideas. Even though he was often lacking money, he built a political structure made up of trusted friends in Nsukka cultural zone and beyond.

The who’s-who in Enugu State came to Lejja for his burial. [I dared not go close. Hours later, my mum and some friends accompanied me to see his parents. I spent about 10 minutes, but tears couldn’t keep me there, and I hurriedly left.] Among the politicians that witnessed his burial was Mr Ugochukwu Agballah, the APGA gubernatorial candidate for Enugu State in 2003 whose victory was stolen by election riggers. Christian of Opi, Uzor of Edem-Ani and almost all our fellow combatants in APGA were at the burial/funeral. From 2001 to 2003, Ozota was the secretary of the party in the state. Like Agballah, he was originally a member of the PDP in 1999. And, like Agballah, he left the party less than a year after the inauguration of the Fourth Republic. Reason: a murderous gang that called itself Ebeano had taken over the ruling PDP in the state. For Ozota, Agballah and me, Ebeano was a band of thieves and cultists and had to be rejected. We left the PDP, formed a movement called Oganiru Enugu, and started seeking accommodation in new political parties that were emerging then.

The progressives went into near-oblivion after 2003 and the “re-election” of Ebeano candidates in the state PDP. And APGA offered no hope, as it was torn apart by crises. A glimmer of hope came when the current governor of Enugu State, Mr Sullivan Chime, dumped Ebeano and all it represented. Ozota found his way back to the PDP. Until his painful exit on February 12, he was an adviser to the chairman of Nsukka local government, Mr Daniel Ugwuja.

Ozota led a life full of sacrifices. A little careless at times, he denied himself some basic necessities of life in order to satisfy the needs of others. For instance, by the time he returned from the National Youth Service Corps in 1991, he had been able to save more than N5, 000 (a lot of money at the time), which he used to set up a bookshop for his brother immediately. While working in a bank, he bought sewing machines and many other tools in preparation for businesses that never took off. He saw no need to maintain and use his first car, a Toyota Corolla, after a few months. On his election as state secretary of APGA, Agballah offered him a Peugeot 505 which he rejected outright.

In at least two books that are yet to be published, Ozota penned his thoughts about many things under the universe. The last day we met before the accident, at a joint on Anglican Road (where we celebrated Barack Obama’s inauguration as American president), he told me the manuscripts were ready for editing. He used to discuss the contents of his books with me, and I was to edit them. One tells the story of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of Nigeria’s first military coup. Another is almost a biography of the first Catholic priest and bishop born in Nsukka zone, Michael Eneja. He often appreciated the wisdom-packed words of Bishop Eneja, especially after listening to his homilies during his active years. Ozota was planning to get that book published before the first anniversary of Bishop Eneja’s death this November.

Fide Ozota and I are third cousins, but it was character rather than blood that brought us together. From September 1978 when we met for the first time, we never quarreled. In bad times and in good times, we did not desert each other. You could always rely on Fidel.

But why should the story of every good person always end in a tragedy? Had he lived longer, Ozota probably would have been Nigeria’s equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan. His uncanny ability to provide an answer to every problem often made me call him an eternal optimist.

My attitude to life changed on the day my closest friend died. I never thought it was possible to hear he was no more. Standing some 60 metres from the grave that has now become Ozota’s, I could recount the great wisdom contained in the opening verses of the Bible book of Ecclesiastes that both of us used to quote: “Vanity upon vanities… All is vanity.” I could remember Shakespeare too – Fidel and I quoted him often. Now I borrow from Mark Antony’s tribute to Julius Caesar: This was an Ozota; when cometh such another?

***

POSTSCRIPT: The foetus he deposited just before the fire disaster was born a lookalike son in November 2009. His brother Chinecherem had been born in 1999; between them are their four sisters. Dorothy and the six kids are doing well. Fide’s dad Ignatius, 90, is now Eze Akaibite, the eldest male in Amankwo, the eldest village in Akaibite Lejja.

February 12, 2009, remains a cursed date. The shock has subsided, but nothing in the world excites me anymore. One by one, I have continued to lose other loved ones, including some of those who had commiserated with me over Ozota’s demise: Paul Omeke, Ignatius Eze of Ede-Oballa, my father-in-law Matthew Ugwuoke, Fide’s mom Theresa, Linus Amu, Cecilia Eze, Titus Agu, WC Eze…

Life is truly laborious, miserable, brutish, nasty and short. It’s a stage… a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. We shall pass this way but once.

Curtain!

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