Tribute: The pains of losing a father

Ogunsakin Mustapha
43 Min Read

By Ephraim Emeka Ugwuonye

I just lost a father, who has been there for me for the past 30 years. It is a big blow that I did not foresee. I mistakenly thought he would live forever. And now, he is gone, suddenly, but with much dignity as he lived.

When I was leaving the University of Benin for the Nigerian Law School in 1991, I had performed well in Uniben. I was popular among the wise and the prudent. Many wished me well. Two professors from Enugu – Professor Ene, the Acting Vice-Chancellor, from Udi, and Professor Amechi Onyia, of the College of Medicine, also from Udi – took active interest in me and they all wanted me to go far further in my development.

As I was heading to Lagos for the Nigerian Law School, Professor Amechi Onyia gave me a letter, which he asked me to deliver to one wealthy philanthropist from our state. The philanthropist was Chief Alhaji Abdulazeez Ude, also from Abor, Udi. (All these men were from the same local government area of Enugu State). The letter Professor Onyia gave me to deliver to Chief Abdulazeez Ude was sealed. I had no idea what he wrote in that letter. But the address where I was to deliver it was very clear – 59 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.

I got to Lagos, and while completing the registration procedure for Law School, I decided to use the opportunity to deliver Professor Onyia’s letter. I came to the office of Chief Abdulazeez Ude. But he was not there. (In fact, he was such a big man that I did not really expect to meet him personally. I just wanted to deliver the letter and disappear in the direction I came from). I met with Chief Ude’s manager. I handed over the letter to him and turned and left.

I was almost about to jump into a bus when I heard someone calling me. I turned back. It was someone on the balcony of Chief Ude’s office beckoning me back to the building. The manager handed me back the letter I had delivered. He said to me: “Because of the nature of the content of this letter, I advise you to deliver this letter personally to Chief Ude. And for that purpose, you should go to his residence in Mekuien Road, Ikoyi”. That was how the letter I had delivered was rejected and I was redirected.

As I was in the bus heading back to where I was staying, pending the opening of the Nigerian Law School students hostel, I became so curious about the content of the letter that caused it to be returned to me. Obviously, the letter has been opened by the manager. So, it won’t be an offence if I peeped inside it. I gently opened the letter. In it, Professor Onyia wrote:

“Dear Oduneje Ogu I” (one of the chieftaincy titles of Chief Ude), “This young man is from our place. He is leaving Uniben one of the best ever. He is someone I think you should watch”.

That was it. At that point, I did not really know Chief Ude beyond the various newspaper articles I read that depicted him as very wealthy and that he was from Enugu State. I didn’t know much else about him. So, I didn’t know what else to make out of this letter and the need to deliver it to him. However, I was pleased to know what Professor Onyia thought about me. The idea of me being watched was a bit scary, though. Was I so dangerous that I needed to be watched by a very rich and powerful man? I wasn’t sure really what to make out of that. But I set my mind to meeting Chief Ude.

The day came, a few weeks later. I was already in the student’s hostel of the law school. I took a bus to Falomo bus-stop in Ikoyi, and trekked from there to Chief Ude’s house (about a mile from the bus-stop). His staff I met at the gate took the letter from me and went in with it. Because of my previous experience, I did not leave. I stayed to know what would happen after he would have seen the letter.

The staff came right back and told me to follow him. He led me into his living room where Chief Ude was waiting for me, with Professor Onyia’s was waiting. (I was later to learn that Chief Ude and Professor Onyia had been close friends since their days as students of Columbia University in New York. Hence, the letter was well-received). I found myself in one of the most stupendously rich and affluent living rooms I was ever to see in real life then. The living room was like a hall and attendants and personal staff were everywhere. I was led straight to a calm man with much aura around him. As I stood in front of him, I could see the letter in his hand. He didn’t waste time at all. Powerful and intelligent men don’t waste time because time is precious to them. He said to me: “You are now at the law school here?” I said yes. He said: “I have heard what Amechi said about you. I want you to come back next week. Bring with you the list of all you need for the Nigeria law school”. I thanked him and left. It all lasted less than five minutes.

When I returned to the law school hostel, I calculated all I needed for the entire year at the Nigerian law school – school fee, feeding, books, etc., and it came to N29,000 and change. I wanted to take the list to Chief Ude. But I reasoned thus: “I have already paid my school fees at the law school. Another Benefactor of mine, who paid for my education in Uniben, Engr. Clement Aningo and his wife, Rita Aningo, from Oghe, had already paid everything I needed at the Law School. To now collect N29,0000 from Chief Ude would be a double portion, an unneeded excess, which I might just waste. Also, this Chief Ude is a very wealthy man. Why exhaust his generosity on Nigerian Law School fees which I didn’t need? Why not reserve it for Harvard Law School, which I plan to attend in two years’ time?” With this thought on my mind, I did not go back to Chief Ude as he asked me to. I felt sure he would forget me. But I did not forget him.

Two years later, I got admission to study at Harvard Law School. The school fees at Harvard Law School then was $53,000. I was working at Chevron as an entry level baby lawyer. There was no way I could afford Harvard school fees unless I was helped. I went to my boss then, Mr. Godfrey Etikerentse, the General Counsel of Chevron, to ask for help from Chevron. He was happy for me to study at Harvard, but there was no clear channel for Chevron to give scholarship to a baby lawyer who hadn’t even been with them for up to 12 months. So, his initial response was lukewarm. The only person that crossed my mind was Chief Ude. I decided to go back to him two years after I met him that once.

It was a hot May whether. It was night, around 7pm. I showed up at the home of Chief Ude, armed with nothing other than the letter of admission from Harvard. The atmosphere was light and friendly at the gate and the gatemen let me in. They didn’t know me. I was just a young man (23-year old) that wanted to see Chief Ude. I was actually surprised that they would let me in without rigorous questioning. But they only let me into the compound. It was still a huddle to get to see Chief Ude.

When I finally made it into the living room, I saw a lot of people all dressed like Alhajis waiting for him. His living room was like a conference of many Alhajis. As I stepped into the living room, I saw a pair of legs descending from a spiral stairway in the middle of the living room. The legs soon turned into a body with a head. And guess who came down the stairs. It was Professor Amechi Onyia, he had come to visit his friend just that evening. We had not seen again since I left Uniben. (Then, there was no cell phone or internet or text messaging – so, no contact with Professor Onyia since I left Uniben two years earlier). He was surprised to see me. The first thing he said to me was: “Chief Ude said you never came back”. I said: “Yes, sir: the work at the law school was so rigorous and I could not come back. But I am here now. And I have a message for the Chief”. I handed him the letter of admission from Harvard Law School. He looked at it and was excited. He told me to stand at that spot and wait. He disappeared up the same spiral stairway he came down from two minutes ago. I stood there like a pillar of salt.

Less than five minutes later, I saw Professor Onyia’s legs coming down the stairs again. But this time, he did not come all the way down. He only got to the point where I could see his face. He motioned for me to follow him up the stairs. I did. As I walked into another hall, I saw a group of men sitting and one man was behind the desk and obviously the leader. That was Chief Ude. He was holding the letter of admission in his hand. Apparently, Professor Onyia had explained everything to him, including why I did not come back as he directed me two years earlier.

As I stood in front of him, Chief Ude said in our dialect: “My friend, what else did they say you passed?” (Asi no gini ka I passikwalu ozo?). As he asked, he was looking at my admission letter. He continued: “To get admission to Harvard Law School, you must be a truly brilliant young man”. Then as if he forgot that I was still standing, he said, again with a proverb: “Dia anyi nolo ana tupu ibutalu m obia”, which meant simply that I should be seated. I sat down.

Without saying anything else to me, Chief Ude called his secretary, Mr. Paul Ugwu, who was there. He said to Mr. Ugwu: “Please take a dictation for a letter to Harvard Law School”. The next thing I noticed was Chief Ude dictating a letter to be sent by fax to Harvard. He started: “Dear Sir: Your letter to Candidate Ephraim Emeka Ugwuonye dated ——- apropos. I hereby give myself the privilege of contributing modestly this this young man’s brilliant academic career by undertaking to pay his school fees at Harvard Law School. Please contact me for all that is required”. He handed the letter of Admission to Mr. Ugwu so he would know how to address the letter he just dictated.

I was shocked. I was confused. How could this be possible? I came to him hoping he would give me about $10,000 and I would go elsewhere for the rest. But look at this! I didn’t believe it. I looked around the room again to see if these men had been drinking. But there was no trace of alcohol anywhere around. I was still confused when Mr. Ugwu returned with the letter for signature. The Chief signed the letter on the spot and five minutes after, Mr. Ugwu returned to inform him that the letter has been faxed to Harvard. I remember Chief Ude saying to Mr. Ugwu: “Harvard will contact us soon. So, be ready for that”. Then addressing both Mr. Ugwu and me, he said: “Get together, get his international passport and you get ready to travel.”

As I left the house of Chief Ude that night, I could not feel my feet touching the ground. It was as if I was floating in the air. (I remembered the stories my grandmother had told me, of spirits that floated in the air and I wondered if I had become one). I really could not believe all that happened. I thought I was dreaming. The next day, in the office, Mr. Etikerentse called me to ask about my plans for Harvard. I did not know that Mr. Etikerentse had been working behind the scene to get Chevron to offer me a scholarship. But that would be on the condition that I would return back to Lagos to continue working for Chevron. I told Mr. Etikerentse my encounter with Chief Ude the night before. He did not believe it. He said to me: “Please don’t take such promise seriously. Do you realize how expensive it is to attend Harvard University? Only your blood father can spend that amount on your education. Don’t accept the offer from any individual. It is a 419-promise. He will disappoint you down the line”. With this from Mr. Etikerentse, a boss I respected so much, my doubts about Chief Ude’s offer increased. I began to think over it. My mind went to a particular phrase in Chief Ude’s letter to Harvard “…to contribute modestly to this young man’s brilliant academic career.” I concluded that Ude did not mean to bear the entire school fees, that he only intended to contribute a part of it. The question then was how much would he be contributing.

Few days later, I had an opportunity to know exactly how much Chief Ude wanted to contribute and to confirm if Mr. Etikerentse was right that nobody would pay all that money for a person that is not his biological son. That opportunity arose when Harvard Law School sent straight to Chief Ude’s office a form known as sponsor’s declaration and proof of funds. They wanted him to state exactly how much he was willing to commit and the proof of availability of funds. Mr. Ugwu sent for me. I rushed to his office. He told me that he just got the form for Chief Ude to sign but that Chief Ude had left to the airport on his way to China, and that he was trying to see if we could still meet him at the airport before his flight would take off.

So, Mr. Ugwu scrambled one of the Chief Ude’s cars and drivers, and we headed to Murtala Mohammed airport. I wasn’t very familiar with the airport then. The only time I had ever flown was when Chevron sent me to their base at Escravos near Warri and when they sent me to Port Harcourt on errand. When we got to the airport, we were allowed to drive close to the plane. (Then the airport security as you know it now did not exist. The idea that terrorists could bomb a plane was still very remote and fictional). So, we drove to where the plane was packed. That was the first time I was to see a private jet in real life or to enter into one.

As we ascended the plane from the rear door, I saw what I did not expect of an airplane. First, we crossed an area described as the bedroom and walked up toward the front where there was the living room and office setting. We met the crew and the pilot. They knew Mr. Ugwu, but did not know me. They were expecting us. They asked us to sit down, that Chief Ude was having his shower and would soon join us. (He was having his shower in the private jet? Jesus! I thought about it).

Shortly after, the Chief came out and said to me: “I understand there is something I have to sign”. I said: “Yes, sir”. He took the form from Mr. Ugwu. He glanced at it and signed it where there was space for signature. He did not try to fill the form. He did not try to put a figure in the space where the sponsor was to state exactly how much he was paying. That was what I was expecting to see – how much exactly Chief Ude wanted to “contribute” to my education at Harvard. When he gave back the form to Mr. Ugwu with his signature but without any amount stated, I was forced to say something. And I said: “Sir, you did not state the amount you would be paying for me”. He said: “But you should know the amount they require?”. I said: “Yes, sir, it is $53,000”. He said: “Then write it there. Don’t worry, Paul will fill the spaces. Just give him any information he needs. Better still, he should get the information from Harvard”.

As we left the plane, I was even more confused. I still did not believe that Chief Ude would pay 100% of the fees required by Harvard. To make sure there was no confusion over this, I used the opportunity of this meeting to inform Chief Ude that Chevron was considering giving me a scholarship. But, he waived it off. He said: “That is going to tie you down after your leave Harvard. You need to be free. So, don’t accept Chevron’s offer”. All this was playing in my head. I felt that if Ude felt he might disappoint me down the line, he would not encourage me to turn down Chevron’s alternative offer. I went home unable to sleep.

Let’s fast forward. Two months later, everything was set for me to leave Nigeria. Chief Ude arranged for me to come to London, UK, to spend some time before continuing to Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Everything was arranged. My paperwork and travel document were ready and Harvard was expecting me. I already had host parents in Cambridge (Mead and Susan Wymans) expecting me. I left Lagos for London in July. When I arrived in London, I was shocked to see a white man carrying a placard with my name written on it. Can you imagine? A white man was there waiting for this village boy from Enugu. I went to him and introduced myself. He greeted me: “Good morning, Sir. Welcome to London. Chief Abdulazeez Ude sent us”. He had another man standing next to him, whom I later learned to be Mr. Sule, the Egyptian who was Chief Ude’s personal driver in London. The two men took by suitcase and led me to a Mercedes Benz. They took me to the Royal Garden Hotel near Hyde Park.

When we got to the hotel, I could overhear the men speaking to the hotel manager. They told him I was Chief Ude’s guest and I was to stay at the hotel for four weeks at the rate of 150 pounds a night. I was checked into my room on the 4th floor. From the window, I could see the heart of London and the streets below. This village boy from Enugu State is now in London. My brains were undergoing rapid transformation. I immediately began to drop the past life and to assume the new one. Everything inside me instantly began to change. I was thinking about all this when I fell asleep. It was a very long sleep. I arrived London by 5:30am with an overnight flight from Lagos. I checked into the hotel around 7:30am. I had my first ever English breakfast around 8:30am. I tried to pretend I was used to everything around me, even though I was seeing most of my surrounding for the first time. I slept off around 10am. The next thing I heard was my hotel room phone ringing. I picked it. The voice was from the reception: “Mr. Ugwuonye, you have a guest. Please hold on for him”. I could remember the voice of Sule. He said in perfect English accent: “Mr. Ugwuonye, the Chief wonders if you would be available to have dinner with him tonight”. Before he could finish, I think I shouted “yes” more than three times. Then I thought: “Wow! These people really know how to say the opposite of what they mean to say. How can be wondering if I would be available for him, when he owns all my time”.

I dressed up quickly and came down to the lobby and Sule pulled up the car, a different Mercedes Benz from the one they came to . I got in and I was taken to a mansion in Central London, which I learnt was Chief Ude’s residence in London. He had set up a dinner and invited a few British friends of his. And his wife, Philomena, a medical doctor, who had been his childhood sweetheart, was there. While seated there, I saw the visitors eating some fruits that looked round in shape, bigger than peas in size but very much smaller than apples. Those fruits were in three different colors – dark red, black and green. I had never seen or eaten that stuff, but since everybody was eating it, I did not want to advertise my village background by not joining them. That was how I tasted grapes for the first time in my life. I told you everything was changing in my life very fast. In 24 hours, so much change had occurred already. It was then it dawned on me why Chief Ude wanted me to spend weeks in London before going to Harvard. He knew that I would meet the children of Presidents and Prime Ministers from all over the world in Harvard. He wanted me to blend better by giving me a crash-orientation on how to look urbane and aristocratic among my classmates at Harvard. It was to push out of me much of the village and replace it with the urbane cultured disposition of the suave of the elite by the time my classmates would meet me.

For the two weeks I was in London, it was one day for a tour of London, guided by various professional tour guides, and the next day a dinner with Chief Ude and his British friends. Because I quickly understood the plan, I made effort to learn and soak up things like a sponge does to water. After four weeks, I made a remarkable improvement. I began to look debonair. I learned to smile, walk and speak in a sophisticated manner characteristic of a well-groomed man of the world. I learned the names of wines and food, and the gestures of a British elite. I even began to speak like them and make my facial expressions like them.

I also learnt things about Chief Ude that I had not known all this while. He was a highly sophisticated and well-trained man with vast knowledge of the world. He schooled in Oxford University where he got his BSc Degree and Columbia University in New York where he got his Masters Degree in Economics. He was too well educated. The then President of Guinea, Sekou Toure, took him as his son and made him his Special Adviser. It was through the influence and his relationship with President Sekou Toure that Chief Ude converted to Islam and became ultimately Chief Alhaji Abdulazeez Ude. (It is important to note that Ude’s conversion to Islam, to which he remained faithful till death, had no Nigerian influence).

Then came the day in August when I was to fly from London to Boston. School would resume officially on August 24th, I was to arrive Boston on August 23, the same day I was to leave London. During our dinner on August 22nd, Chief Ude instructed Sule to bring me early on 23rd so that he would personally escort me to the airport. But Sule suggested that there was no need for him to come to the airport in person, that he could take me to the airport. But Chief Ude said no, that he would like to see me off to the airport personally.

On 23rd I was brought to Chief Ude’s residence around 11am. I had checked out of the hotel by 10:30am. My flight was to take off by 5pm from Heathrow International Airport, London, to Logan International Airport, Boston. Chief Ude and I had lunch together by 12noon. After lunch we returned to our seats in the living room. We were just talking and he was telling me things. He was particularly nice. In the past one month that I had been in London, even though he travelled out of London twice during that time, he spent time with him, and he allowed me to sit in during his social meetings with people and he always introduced me and he told his guests that I was very bright and that I was going to Harvard Law School. So, I had gotten used to his presence and I could see that this man had taken me like his own child. Nobody seeing us in London would know that he and I met not long ago.

By 1pm, Chief Ude said to me: “We need to get going. Go over there and count out 50 of those” (pointing me to a table at the end of the hall). When I got to the table, I saw 100-dollars bills in pile of currency. I was momentarily shocked at the heap of currency. My mind quickly rushed to what Mr. Etikerentse had told me, that this whole thing I was doing with Chief Ude sounded like a 419-thing. Despite that what I now knew about Ude had disabused my mind of any such notion, I was still stunned by the large amount of money. I carefully counted out 50 of the notes. I came back to Chief Ude and said: “Sir, here it is”, showing him the bundle of $5,000 in my hand. He said: “That is what you should spend from until you are able to cash this”, and he handed a cheque of $55,000 to me. I was staring in confusion. We then took pictures and got into the car to the airport. He rode with me in the back of one of his Mercedes cars to the Airport. We hugged and he said goodbye to me. I felt tears in my eyes. My biological father was long dead. The only parent I had at that time was my mother. And this man just adopted me as his son. I was quite emotional.

As I walked through the light airport security. That time, there was no such airport security as we know it today. You can even get to the entrance of the plane without anybody asking for your ID card. As I walked into the airport, I touched my pocket to see if the dollars were still there. They were there. I then said: Okay, let me confirm that the dollars were real money. Human mind can play all sorts of tricks on us. Though at this point I had no reason to doubt Chief Ude, my mind still urged me to confirm that the money was real. So, I stopped by a store at the airport to try to buy something. I grabbed a pair of socks and gave the seller one of the dollar bills. He took it and gave me change without questions asked. There was no doubt, the money was real.

That evening when I landed at Logan, I was looking in all directions, as a new comer, and a young custom officer asked me if I had money on me. I said yes. He asked me how much. I asked him if cheques could be included and he said yes. I told him that I had $60,000 on me. He was shocked. He took me to their office and said to a more senior custom officer that “this kid has $60,000 on him”. The senior officer asked me to show him. I brought out the almost $5000 cash and $55,000 cheque. He asked me what was all the money for. I told him it was my school fees at Harvard. He already saw that Harvard University was stamped on my visa. I saw the man shake his head and say to his colleagues: “They tell us that Africans are poor, and an African kid just works in with two times my annual salary in his pocket”. He shrugged his shoulders and gave me back my money, and stamped my passport and allowed me through.

The Chief Ude that I am talking about is dead! I just got the news. He died at nearly age 81. So, he lived long enough ordinarily. I did not realize I would miss him so much. But now, I realize with so much pain how much that man loved me. He cared for me. He cared about my children. In fact, I named my only biological son, Ude, after Chief Ude. When I heard of his death, I thought I could accept it as the fact of life. After all, we all shall die. But, no, I can’t just accept it. My body doesn’t accept it. I am gutted. I am totally torn to pieces right now.

It was not just that he paid my school fees at Harvard, Chief Ude remained a father to me throughout. He was so agonized over my fights with the Nigerian government. He felt it was not necessary. He felt I had everything it took for me to avoid the fights, even if it meant staying safely away from Nigeria for the time being. He knew that I have had close friendship with many influential Nigerians including past Heads of State of Nigeria. He once wondered why I could not use my friendship to block off some of the needless and highly destructive clashes I have been involved in. My only guilt today is the feeling that the disruptive encounters I have had with the Nigeria Government took away much of the time I needed to have spent with Chief Ude in his last days on earth. If anybody told me last week that I would not see Chief Ude today, I would not believe it.

At a different occasion, I will share with the world, the details of my continued relationship with Chief Ude. We remained so close after I left Harvard. He once took me on a tour to three African countries just to introduce me to his friends in Guinea, Algeria and Morocco. He spoke perfect French. To see how close we were, I will tell you this story. In 2006, after my divorce, I started a relationship with another lady (a Nigerian lady). I came to introduce the lady to Chief Ude. He already heard that I was going out with the lady and he was concerned about the possibility of us getting married. But he said nothing to me. However, the day I came to introduce the lady to him, he refused to see me. He sent a message that he was too tired from playing golf. I left without seeing him. On a second occasion, I came to see him with the lady, with intention to introduce her. Again, he refused to see us. Apparently, he knew more about the lady than I did. (The lady is a politician and well-known. She was older than I by many years, but age was not the issue). So, she was a well-known person in Nigeria. Again, the Chief could not see us. Instead, he sent for me to meet him somewhere else in his vast compound. When I stepped in, I met him visibly upset with me. For the first time, I saw him upset with me. He screamed at me: “Che che la feme! Che che la femme!” in French. “What the hell are you doing with that lady?”. He was really upset with me. He scolded me. He said: “The story of Sampson and Delilah is not just a story in the Bible. It is a story of life. It doesn’t matter how successful a man may be, if he makes a mistake in his choice of woman, she will bring the whole roof down on his head”. He spoke to me as a father and I got the message.

As if he knew that I was a stubborn man, the following month, Chief Ude sent Alex Akporji, his confidant, to travel from Nigeria to meet me in Washington to deliver the same advice. The summary of it is that Chief Ude cared so much for me that he was concerned that I was going to make a mistake in a choice of a wife. That is the fear of every true father.

Chief Ude has grown biological children, who are so well established (trained in schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania). They are lawyers and doctors, etc. He also trained countless people all over the world. We all owe so much to him. His life was of great benefit to many. And his death is the greatest tragedy I have encountered in recent time. He left a legacy that must live forever.

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