If Dr. Kingsley Ozuomba Mbadiwe the indefatigible Nigerian politician better known as “KO” or the “Man of Timber and Calibre” was to be alive today he would have found appropriate coinages to describe the absurdities unfolding on the national political firmament and no less so in Imo, his home state, which has been enveloped by gloom over the unintended consequences of government policy. But KO, the Agadagbachiriuzo of Arondizuogu, the Ononenyi of Orlu, the Maye of Lagos, the great eagle around whose name many legends are spun took the eternal bow on August 29, 1990. Since then no politician with the same vivacity and audacity has illuminated the Nigerian political landscape.
Born at Oneh in Orumba on March 15, 1917 to Mbadiwe Odum of the wealthy Odum family of Ndianiche Uno, Arondizuogu in the present Ideato North Local Government of Imo State, KO, at birth, was proclaimed to ba a reincarnation of Okoli Idozuka, a famous warrior and wealthy merchant whose title, Agadagbachiriuzo (the great tree that blocks the way), he inherited and bore all his life. Thus imbued with the heart of a lion from a tender age, KO began school at St. Marys Catholic School, Port Harcourt where his brother, David, was a staff of the Nigerian Railways. His assertive character began to manifest at this time. During the late 1920s while he was holidaying in Arondizuogu, KO who had become fascinated by the aura of Catholicism decided to relinquish the Anglican faith of his family. He walked up boldly to the Irish priest at St. Philips Catholic Church, Ndiakeme to request for baptism. The bewildered priest hedged until an older communicant, Mazi Stephen Okafor Ogbaji, volunteered to mentor the boy who was eventually bestowed with the name Gabriel at baptism. Today, in the large Odum kindred, KO’s nuclear family remains Catholics among Protestants.
After completing his elementary education at Government School, Aba, KO attended Aggrey Memorial College Arochukwu, Baptist College, Lagos and Igbobi College, Lagos. On leaving Igbobi in 1934, he tried his hands at trading, an occupation that made him to settle in Port Harcourt. His residence there proved providencial. When Zik returned from the Gold Coast with the gospel of nationalism and visited PH on a lecture tour in 1937, KO who had just turned 20 at the time was captivated by Zik’s erudition. He got close to Zik and arranged for the orator to meet his wealthy elder brother, J. Green Mbadiwe, then a gold miner and railway contractor in Minna. At the meeting, Green readily subscribed to the setting up of the West African Pilot which became the flagship of the Zik group of newspapers with the motto “show the light and the people shall find the way”. KO became the representative of the newspaper for PH, Aba and Onitsha but not for long.
With Zik’s encouragement, KO was one of the seven young men who were inspired to sail to the United States on December 31, 1938 in search of the Golden Fleece: others were Mazi Mbonu Ojike, George Igbodebe Mbadiwe, Otuka Okala, Dr. Nnodu Okongwu, Engr. Nwankwo Chukwuemeka, and Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani. They were later joined by Dr. Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu. KO was to refer to this group as the Seven Argonauts.
On his return to Nigeria in May 1948, KO undertook a tour of the country with a movie “Greater Tomorrow” which he had made in the US to promote the cause of his African Academy of Arts and Science. With interst generated by the film, the Academy was able to send a batch of 16 students to the US before the end of that year. In April 1951 KO joined the NCNC. Not long after, the Macpherson Constitution was promulgated which introduced regionalism into the political matrix. With radical nationalism manacled by the ban placed on the Zikist movement, KO contested and won election as member for Orlu in the Eastern Regional House of Assembly from where he was elected to the Federal House of Representatives in Lagos. In 1952, KO was appointed the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources. The journey through political minefields which saw him remaining in the limelight for almost four decades had begun.
How does one begin to catalogue the contributions of a man like KO to Nigerian politics? But in a country that is no stranger to ironies, memories run short. K.O made persistent calls for the ‘rebirth’ of this nation. Over fifty odd years ago, he convened the first committee on National Rebirth, a forum for all political leaders. Even his authobiography published in 1990 is aptly titled ‘Rebirth of a Nation’. Today Nigeria has adopted and institutionalized both the catchphrase and the idea. K.O fought for the institution of a zoning system (which was encapsulated in his typically illustrative coinage “zoning to unzone” as a sine qua non for equity and national development. It was K.O who secured the inclusion of the clause “25% of votes cast in at least two thirds of the states of the Federation” in the 1979 constitution during his days in the Constituent Assembly to counteract the dangers of electing a president by “simple majority”.
In his lifetime, K.O showed a preference for a nationally based political party over any regional or ethnic party. This has become accepted today as the only panacea for national unity. How many residents of Surulere today know that this model estate was conceived and established in a virtual forest by K.O as Minister for Lands to settle victims of the Lagos slum clearance project, a scheme that was resisted and opposed by the Action Group? Indeed, when K.O moved a motion in 1952 to remove Lagos from the Western Region in view of its status as a capital city, the same Action Group opposed and caused the motion to fail. But K.O’s DPNC struck an alliance with Action Group in 1958. At that time he was thought by Ndigbo to have committed political sacrilege. Today, ‘handshake across the Niger’, a synonym for Igbo/Yoruba political co-operation has become a favourite song in the Igbo political hymnal
Even before 1958, K.O’s vision, amiability and candour had moved him to earn the trust and confidence of the northern political establishment. This made it possible for him to engineer many monumental political alliances: the NCNC/NPC alliance (1954), the NPN/NPP alliance (1981) and, when that failed, the multi party alliance which K.O the quintessential wordsmith tagged ‘accord-concordiale’ (1982). K.O Mbadiwe was a flamboyant man who thought only in superlatives. As minister of Aviation, he structured Nigerian Airways partnership with Pan-American Airways and took exotic Atiliogwu dancers and two royal trumpeters from Kano on the maiden flight from Lagos to New York which he tagged “Operation Fantastic”. In the thick of his debacle with Zik in 1958, K.O declared that if Azikiwe was “iwe” that he (Mbadiwe) was “iwe” too – an onomatopoeic reference to the identical suffix of their surnames which translate to “anger”. At the heightof the 1965 political crisis in the former Western Nigeria, KO was reported as saying that “when the come comes to become, we shall come out”.
At various times KO served this country at various times as Minister of Communications, Minister of Aviation, Minister for Lands and Natural Resources, Minister for Trade, Personal Adviser to President Shehu Shagari on National Assembly Affairs, and the first and, so far, only ‘Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary’ of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. K.O had an abiding respect for the press which nourished his relationship with the fourth estate of the realm which so glamorized him that even his silence on issues made as much front page news as his comments.
Next to Zik, K.O ranks among the greatest nationalists of Igbo extraction that ever trod this land. This colossal image was recaptured by another orator and hero Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu who wrote in a befitting tribute “K.O was grand, his actions grandiose, his speeches grandiloquent”.
In his lifetime K.O was like the phoenix, a mythical bird that always rose rejuvenated from it’s ashes: there was no single political conflagration from which he did not emerge straight into power or, at worst, into the corridor of power. Today, we refresh our memory on this unforgettable man who (like many other heroes of yesterday) has not received his deserved honour from the government of Nigeria. Even more so, we reflect on the plight of his beloved Orlu zone in general and Arondizuogu in particular which have produced more political heavyweights and trailblazers per capita in Imo State but remain the least developed in every sector of the economy. May the labours of our heroes never be in vain.
Mazi Uche Ohia, a lawyer and farmer, is a research, public policy and strategy consultant.