For Okonta, there is no road ahead

Samuel Okonta

Samuel Okonta

It was Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s pre-eminent journalist and nationalist who reminded us that “youth is the golden age of man.” Sports, especially the Olympic Games and the World Cup are for the celebration of youth. Who would not want to have the elixir of youth and remain forever in that zone of perpetual dream! What can youth not accomplish, what magic can it not wrought?

When we were in secondary school, the legendary boxer, Mohammed Alli visited Nigeria. His picture adorned the front page of the Sunday Times, his body glistering in packed muscles like the sculptured heroes of ancient Ile-Ife. Now Alli is old; shuffling like old men do. Alexander the Great was barely 20 when he was crowned the king of Macedonia and then launched his spectacular military conquest. At 30 in 323 B.C, he was lord of Europe, most of the Middle-East and he was moving to India when he died, cut down by illness. At 29 too, Kaduna Nzeogwu was dreaming big dreams. He led a coup that ended Nigeria’s First Republic. He died at 30 in 1967 during the Nigerian Civil War.

There was a time Nigeria took its youths seriously. They were the hope of tomorrow. They were the leaders of the future and like young cocoa sapling; we pamper them as if we were Ile-Oluji cocoa farmers.

When in 1977 General Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Constituent Assembly to deliberate on the draft 1979 Constitution, the President of the National Union of Nigerian Students, NUNS, Segun Okeowo, was nominated to join them. Okeowo, now late, clad in an all red attire, was a spectacle at the opening ceremony of the Assembly. Okeowo had served as the President of the University of Lagos Students Union, ULSU. In 1978, Nigerian students led by Okeowo, staged a nationwide protest against increase in feeding fees in Nigerian universities. One student was killed in the University of Lagos and five at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. What happened was a national tragedy. In the aftermath of this, Prof. Ishaya Audu, the vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, and his counterpart in the University of Lagos, Prof. Jacob Ade-Ajayi, were among academicians sacked from the two universities.

For us, the Ali-Must-Go uprising of 1978 was a defining moment of our youth. We were protesting against the Federal Government for increasing the cost of the heavily subsidised feeding on the campuses from 50 kobo per day to one naira and 50 kobo. Colonel Ahmadu Alli, a medical doctor and former President of the University of Ibadan Students Union, was then the Federal Commissioner (Minister) for Education. We asked for his sack because we thought he was the cause of our problem. But Alli did not go. Instead we were sent out of our various campuses.

At the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), our student union executive, led by the incomparable Dele Babatunde, who died last year, called a congress. We were there to deliberate on Operation Confrontation, the last phase of our ultimately futile struggle. One of the leaders who spoke on that day was Banji Adegboro, former president of Ibadan Students Union, who after his rustication started a fresh course at Ife. Adegboro, who later died in an automobile accident during his national service, quoting the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah: “When conscienceless power meets powerless conscience, the former lasts first and the latter laugh last.”

I don’t know who is laughing now. Certainly not the family of Samuel Dumebi Okonta. They had sent their young son to Rivers State for his national service. He had bagged a degree in political science from the Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, and the future stretched before him like an autobahn. He was looking forward to a great life after the service when he could finally reap the fruits of his life-long labour. But some people wanted their own rewards on earth, quick, quick. It was for this they had to send Okonta to Heaven in a hurry.

During the Saturday, March 19 re-run election in Rivers State, Okonta had served, along with hundreds of other members of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, as an electoral officer. He was going home after the job was done when some thugs cut him down in a hail of bullets. Like a comet, he had shone briefly and disappeared fast. He had to pay the supreme price for the just concluded inconclusive elections in a state becoming increasingly notorious as the home base of senseless violence.

The Director-General of the NYSC, Brigadier-General Dele Olawumi, while paying a condolence visit to the family of Okonta, said the NYSC is reviewing the agreement with the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, on the deployment of serving corps members for election duties. Olawumi lamented that Okonta died “while contributing towards fostering a credible electoral process.”

The Governor of Rivers State, Nyesom Wike, who once served as the supervising Minister of Education, also expressed his condolences. Okonta was taken home to his grieving parents and then life continues. It was as if Okonta’s life was equated to the loss of a ballot box or some other electoral materials. This is unacceptable.

The Rivers State government should take an active interest in unmasking the killers of Okonta. This is an era when every phone is also a video camera and the evidence may be hidden in someone’s camera phone. The NYSC should also not accept an ordinary apology as the end of the matter. It should persuade the Nigeria Police to thoroughly investigate the murder and bring the criminals to justice.

More shocking, however, has been the reaction of the youths themselves. I cannot remember any serious reaction from the National Union of Nigerian Students, NANS, the students of Ambrose Alli University, the alumni association of that institution or any relevant youth body. Okonta’s colleagues serving in Rivers State were overjoyed when the governor, during his condolence visit to the NYSC secretariat in Port Harcourt, announced an increase in the state monthly contribution to the corps members’ allowance. The corpers were expected to be sober. These ones were not. Instead they were hailing the governor for his “timely generosity.” They have forgotten that the cane once used on the senior wife but now preserved in the ceiling may also one day come handy on the back of the new wife.

Okonta deserves justice. The Federal Government and Wike should do all that is necessary to ensure that the police bring the killers to justice. When 11 youth corpers were killed in Bauchi during the general elections of 2011, the then President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, authorised that each affected family should be given N5 million. The murderers were never apprehended. Now it is Okonta’s turn. For him, the journey of life has ended and the labourer’s job is done. Let it not be said that the only thing the government can do is to wring its hands in helpless dirge and again throw money at his family. Our country needs to value the lives of our youth because this is essential to the health of the Republic. In this time of change, even the dead deserve justice.

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