When on the night of June 29, at St. Nicholas, where he had been hospitalized, Joe wished me safe journey for my travel the following day, I had thought of our next meeting in Nigeria or in the United States, not expecting to hear the devastating news the day after I arrived. Shocked and confounded, my immediate response was “No-o! It can’t be true!” But it soon dawned on me that death is so impenetrable that no hysteric cry can wake my dear friend of over forty years who had gone to the great beyond. I am suddenly left alone, bereft of whom to lean on at crucial moments. There are friends and there are friends among friends. Joe was of a unique class of friends, a best friend—selfless, sensitive, and responsive; he was always prepared to make sacrifices or suffer inconveniences for me. He took my progress and challenges in life as his and rejoiced and battled with me as I also did with him. In his house he ensured that I had a room of my own.
So many precious moments we shared together over four decades, beginning as undergraduates at U.I. and after graduation in Nigeria, the United States, and Europe. When U.I. was closed down following the shooting of Kunle Adepoju, it was he and Ezekiel Okpan (who had since 1995 left us) who came to wake me in the afternoon and helped me through the fence to evacuate the campus for safety—they would not leave without me! In 1979, while we were doing our graduate studies in the US—Joe at Bloomington and I at Syracuse—we found time to tour the United States and Britain. The first leg of the American tour was for me to take a Greyhound bus to Bloomington, Indiana, and then for both of us to drive from there to Florida and back to Syracuse. At the University of Florida, Gainesville, we met an African-American student who told us that we could not eat in certain restaurants; we defied his caution to test American racism and, if possible, experience discrimination first-hand. We were served and treated well. As the Nigerian Army must have taught him, Joe in turn taught me not to yield but to challenge every impediment. Joe had been the senior brother that I never had. Swimming with him at St. Petersburg, Florida, he, all of a sudden, pulled me out of the water. “How can we come from the Niger Delta to swim in the Gulf of Mexico?” he asked. “What do I say if something bad were to happen to us?” Joe was highly responsible, thoughtful, careful, and took every precaution to avoid disaster. Later that summer of 1979, which we so much talked about up till this June, we flew to Britain, and while in London and Edinburgh, Joe drilled me, walking long distances that exhausted me. When I shouted “Na wa-o,” he teased me: “And you wanted to join the Army?” He had discouraged me in 1973 from joining the Education Corps of the Nigerian Army because he felt I could not cope with the physical demands, insisting that I was a “book” person.
Joe called me Moses, which he enunciated into “Mo-ze-es,” whenever he wanted to either tell me something serious or make me to re-think an action or an idea that he felt could lead me astray. He was my confidant at all times. He prevailed on me to do the Ph.D. in English rather than the Doctor of Arts in English, and I would have regretted not listening to him. Earlier, he had supported my leaving the Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, for the University of Maiduguri for an academic career. He was my General and Commander; I trusted him because he wanted the best for me. He showed special concern for me, and he was naturally sensitive and lent a hand to whoever needed help. I was aware of the assistance he gave to friends and relations even after his retirement. He sacrificed a lot to help many people, including friends like me. Even in the hospital bed, he was concerned about how I was going to get to the airport to catch my flight. He placed the problems of others above his own most of the time.
Though the Nigerian Army claimed my friend for his professional career, his mind, heart, and soul were suffused with literary learning. He always lit up whenever we discussed literature. He had an indelible memory and quoted copiously from literary figures, especially William Shakespeare whom he revered. I know of no Nigerian literary scholar of my generation who quoted verbatim lines from King Lear, Hamlet, and other Shakespearean plays as Joe did effortlessly. I could only marvel at how his head retained so much literary stuff. When I arrived in Lagos for a two-month stay on May 1, 2009, Joe asked about my forthcoming novel he had read but which had not come out and warned me with “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries” from Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3, ll. 217-221). Life is a stream of ironies. Though I have been the secular-minded one and he the deeply religious one, he often spoke of the “formlessness of life” that he must have learned from Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Hardy. Joe would have been a very successful and model University Professor of Literature if he had not joined the Army. However, in the Education Corps, he was able to bridge the two inclinations in him: military professionalism and literary exuberance.
Ayi Kwei Armah, the renowned Ghanaian writer, says “the beautyful ones are not yet born.” I disagree with him because some “beautiful ones” have already been born or are always born in their respective generations. Joe was one of the beautyful ones and I am sure the Army did not fully realize that. He was a very patriotic, disciplined, and principled officer, who would not succumb to temptations of corruption, money and women in particular. I know he rejected many offers, including bags of money brought to him to influence his decisions, whether when he served in Ogoja, Minna, Ilorin, or Lagos. Always, Joe took the moral and ethical road and made his decisions professionally.
Joe’s sense of time is unparalleled among Nigerians; he fastidiously kept to time in both his official and personal engagements. I know of no exemption from this rule. We exchanged gifts over the years and I know how much he cherished the gift of a wristwatch that I gave to him. Joe made to me two promises, about which I always reminded him. He said he was going to write a novel. I reminded him only days before he passed on and he could only scratch his head for an answer. In normal times, he did not fail a promise he made. I am therefore dedicating to him the very novel, Matters of the Moment, which he wanted me to publish very soon. The other promise is now beyond him because it was about my mother’s burial and his intention to provide security whenever she should pass on. In matters of death, we humans cannot be held responsible for our ignorance.
A man of indefatigable will, Joe was powerless over death. Ironically, however disciplined and iron-willed a human being is, he or she will not be invincible before death—it is always a matter of time for death to catch up with any of us. My friend was not perfect and, like every human being, had his flaws, but he was a very authentic man, an exceptional personality, a rare gem. He was affable, modest, and humble to the core and treated me, his junior, as an equal or sometimes with deference. At his own dining table, he reserved the head seat for me; a practice I learned from him while I treat my friends and visitors. Joe was an iroko in the forest, an eagle in the sky of so many birds. He was one of the few bright stars in our dark night. He was, above all, a terrific human being and his many virtues will continue to be the guiding light to his living friends and family. Though I would want him to live on as my friend, God knows best and we humbly submit to His will. I will forever miss him until we meet again.
Tanure Ojaide, Ph.D.
Frank Porter Graham Professor, Africana Studies Department
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Charlotte, NC, USA.