By Sunny Awhefeada
Today’s intervention is dedicated to two personages who unknowingly shared similar destinies and walked paths that were similar in more ways than one. I came to know both men in my adult years when I had become old enough to observe, evaluate and reach tentative conclusions. I doubt if they knew each other well as their association was something that can be classified among those phenomena that occurred happenstantially. I am referring to Professor Abednego Eloghene Ekoko and Chief Johnson Modika Barovbe, both of whom joined their ancestors in November and December 2021, respectively. They both breathed their last in Lagos far away from their Isoko and Urhobo homeland. Both men were strong willed and not a few people thought that they would die when they did. They survived the scourge of COVID-19 and before that they survived the buffetings and vagaries of life as they struggled and walked the thorny path of obscurity to renown and literally making bricks without straw. Education and history, as a discipline, bound both men and the two times that their paths crossed were made possible by both phenomena.
The liberating essence of education was central to their lives. Education limned the dark ambience into which they were born in the second decade after colonialism had taken roots in Nigeria.
Professor Ekoko from Uzere in Isoko studied History at the University of Ibadan where he graduated on top of his class in 1971. That feat earned him a coveted postgraduate scholarship to study at the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he graduated with Distinction in the Master’s degree programme. Unrelenting, he proceeded to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and obtained the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in 1976 and returned to his alma mater the University of Ibadan to begin a lifelong career in academics. Widely and fondly called Ẹdhọ at Ibadan, he was a prominent figure in the commune of scholars of Midwest origin who made the University of Ibadan the place to be in the 1970s and 1980s. In that assemblage of scholars was his old teacher, mentor and fellow Isoko man, the legendary Professor Obaro Ikime.
That stellar constellation at different times included Professors Frank Ukoli, Scot-Emuakpor, Onigu Otite, Peter Ekeh, Omafume Onoge, David Okpako, Dan Izevbaye, Moses Amayo, Sam Asein, Michael Nabofa and many others.
Ekoko’s research interest in military history soon attracted the military authorities and in no time he was seconded to the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) in Kaduna, where he not only founded and headed the Department of History, but also became the Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Ekoko left the NDA for the old Bendel State University, Ekpoma and then to the newly established Delta State University, Abraka, in 1992 where he became the pioneer Dean of the Faculty of Arts.
He served as Deputy Vice Chancellor as well Sole Administrator during the University’s heady days. Outside the University, Professor Ekoko was Commissioner at different times in Delta State, including being a Commissioner at the National Boundary Commission in Abuja. In later years, he became a member of the Delta State Advisory Council as well as the Governing Council of newly established universities in Delta State.
Highly principled and constantly speaking truth to power, Professor Ekoko was a leading figure in Isoko nationalism and he was the Oketa and Odio of Uzere Kingdom. A thoroughbred university man, Professor Ekoko retired from the Delta State University nearly fifteen years ago, but he never left the University. The teacher in him saw him taking up an adjunct position that enabled him to teach despite his more than very busy schedule. He was a scholar through and through. His presence in the Department and Faculty was a great boost to staff and students morale.
Chief Johnson Modika Barovbe was born in Ovu in 1940. By dint of hard work, he went through different strata of education, became a school teacher and more, before seeking the Golden Fleece in the United Kingdom. He took Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Business Administration from Middlesex University and the University of Bradford before returning to Nigeria in 1978.
Returning to Nigeria, he pitched tent with the private and corporate sectors where he was instrumental to breathing life into different companies notable being Dumex Industrial Nigeria Ltd., where he rose to become General Manager, as well as CICA Nigeria Ltd. On leaving paid employment in 1998 and having acquired enough managerial and business skills, he ventured into business consultancy and made a huge success of it. He veered into property development as well education. He was the founder and proprietor of the famous Westminster College in Lagos.
Chief Barovbe emerged as one of the great leaders of the Urhobo people in the present century. Launching out as President of the highly influential Lagos based Urhobo Social Club, Chief Barovbe became a unifying factor among the Urhobo people in Lagos. His undying love for Urhobo history and culture saw him being a prime motivator of the Urhobo Historical Society (UHS). Through his position in the Urhobo Social Club and the Urhobo Historical Society which he coordinated in Nigeria, he was able to galvanize the Urhobo people to move in a progressive direction. Tough as the task of mobilizing the Urhobo was, (Urhobo be suon), Chief Barovbe made a good job of it and thus earned the sobriquet of Awhotu of Urhobo nation.
When the Urhobo Progress Union (UPU) showed signs of derailment, Chief Barovbe was in the vanguard of the movement to realign the Union to its noble ideals of fostering unity and development among the Urhobo people. Chief Barovbe was a man of action. He was fearless and spoke to truth to power not minding whose ox was gored. He had presence and commanded authority. People listened when he spoke. He was the Okuna of Agbon Kongdom as well as the Tosogbe of Badagry.
My reckoning indicates that Ekoko and Barovbe, both men of action, first met in late 2013 during the public presentation of the book Olomu and Development of Urhoboland and Western Niger Delta edited by Peter Ekeh, et al at the Urhobo Historical Society conference on the day it was hosted by Olomu Kingdom. Barovbe as the Nigerian coordinator of the UHS was more or less the chief host while Ekoko was the book reviewer.
They met a second time and definitely the last, in March 2021 during the symposium and day of tributes in honour of Professor Peter Ekeh held at Uvwiamuge-Agbarho. Here Barovbe was guest of honour while Ekoko was a discussant of the lecture delivered by Professor Eghosa Osaghae. Both men loved education and were enamoured by history. Their mutual friends, Professors Ekeh, Ikime and Otite shared similar interest and abiding dedication to history and culture. At the symposium in Uvwiamuge-Agbarho, Ekoko and Barovbe shook hands warmly and began a conversation that lasted for a while. They were there in honour of a mutual friend. They didn’t know that they will be joining him in about a year or less than. Professor Ekoko followed Professor Ekeh and Chief Barovbe was in tow! Death is cruel!
One is consoled that both men lived well and left legacies that will outlive them. They fulfilled the core elements of Urhobo and Isoko prayer: children, long life, wealth and good health which they enjoyed for a long time. Farewell Professor Abednego, first Edho later Eloghene, Ekoko. Farewell Chief Johnson Modika Barovbe!!!