This was the period of rebuilding the nation after the destruction and the cataclysmic losses of both human and material resources in the country were recorded in the annals of Nigeria’s history of Conflicts. Bendel State known then as the Mid-Western state served as the major mid-point between the Eastern and Western Nigeria. The Ibos who in today’s Anioma areas like Ika, Obulukwu,Asaba, Aniocha fought on the side of their brothers-the Igbos and many of them who worked in the then Bendel State Civil service were dismissed due to their role during the civil war, but the late Samuel Ogbemudia did a major reconciliation work when he was appointed as the Governor of Bendel state. He recalled all the Igbos from Bendel state into the Bendel Civil Service. The state which comprised what we know today as Edo and Delta states was highly polarized. It was one of the most difficult states to govern. But what did he do? The first major challenge was to unite the polarized state into one indivisible unit as the proud Bendel state.
The first thing Ogbemudia did was to ensure that all the houses the Biafran and Mid-West Igbos abandoned were captured in a census, rents on them were collected and banked and they were handed back to their rightful owners whenever they showed up –with the rent accruals.
He appointed Dr. Isaac Okonjo from Okwashuku as the Secretary to the State government. This Secretary to the state introduced sold a lofty idea to Samuel Ogbemudia that he should embark on building a Super-State where every Bendel indigene would be very proud to belong. This lofty idea was gladly bought by Samuel Ogbemudia as he brought several landmark achievements to the state. It is difficult for the past governors after him to reach the height of achiements the late Samuel Ogbemudia attained while in office. We recall that the first Administrator of the State, the late Dr. Dennis Osadebey started the leadership of the state after the creation of the Western region in a glamorous way to build the state, but was interrupted due to the war, however the late Samuel Ogbemudia continued from his predecessor to rebuild the state to greatness.
He introduced the Mid-West Line – Mercedes Benz air-conditioned luxury buses and cars (Peugeot 404 station wagons which served the need of the lower class) to cruise from Benin, its base, to far flung parts of Nigeria. Like, a national airline, the Mid-West Line flew the state’s flag. Passengers would be served meals during the trip. There was a departure and arrival time-tables too. Within Mid-West, an inter-city bus service made transportation cheap, easy and hassles-free. Students in uniform had a reduced rate. Many of the bus drivers were women!
Everybody has heard that Ogbemudia made Bendel number one in sports, and that he established a Sports Camp in Afuze village. But not many know that Ogbemudia would spend weeks at a go in that camp with the athletes, answering the 5.30 am roll call with them and hosting the Executive Council meeting in Afuze whenever he was there. Under him the state craved for the little ways of doing things differently just to set the state apart from the rest. Thus, at the 1973 First National Sports Festival, other states took the match-past in track suits, but the Mid-West athletes received a sustained ovation when they appeared in Ankara traditional up and down style with the state’s map and Ogbemudia’s face emblazoned at the front and back of the bearers. Medal-winning field and tracks athletes from school competitions were removed from their schools to congregate at Edo College, Benin-City. Promising student footballers were sent to New Era, Benin. Table-Tennis players were sent to Hussey College, Warri. The entire Mid-West schools were a vast sports factory that churned out athletes who were sent to the designated schools to gain from burnishing by coaches. Some, like St. Anthony’s College, Ubulu-Uku’sAninye Jonathan (alias Atangana) won a silver medal at the under 13 junior Table-Tennis category at the 1973 National Sports Festival, and earned a six-month training stint in Shanghai, China. Senior category athletes who have represented the state were routinely sent out to schools as “coaches” to prepare students for competitions and bring out the best in the students – and earn some cash too. That was how Coach Odudu came to teach Lawn-Tennis at St. Anthony’s College Ubulu-Uku, and while he represented the state in the senior category that 1973, his ward, Emmanuel Obiora did the same at the junior level – and earned a silver medal. It is easy to remember that Ogbemudia built many tertiary institutions but not many still remember that twice a month, trucks and boats filled with books would tour the state – as part of Mid-West Mobile library and card-holding members would borrow books. Ogbemudia also set up the Institute of Continuing Education centres for the adult’s informal education. This enabled many over-aged people and workers to attend school in the evenings and earn certificates. Not to leave the villages behind, Ogbemudia provided T.V viewing centres in them, powered by small electricity generators. It was in one of such, in Ubilu-Uku, Aniocha North LGA, Delta State that this reporter watched Mohammed Ali’s defeat by Joe Frazier in 1971. People gathered in such places to watch the evening news and popular TV plays…and football matches. Still on education, Ogbemudia set up the Ethiope Publishing Company to churn out books for the state’s secondary schools and the Mid-West Book Depot to import books at reasonable prices. Many teachers took advantage of Ethiope Publishers to become authors. Yes, you may have heard that Ogbemudia extended social amenities as much as he could. But it is hard to believe that a state Governor would, on seeing some students going to the stream in the evening and stop his entourage to chat with them. He wondered why St. Anthony’s College Ubulu-Uku did not have pipe-borne water. The result was a contract that provided an over-head tank that would store water that would be piped in from the nearby Iyi-Ago stream. Pipes were laid across the school from which taps protruded; those pipes and taps still remain dry to this day. Lesson; even Ogbemudia could not finish all the projects he started …or did a conscienceless contractor swindle the state? Yes, many Nigerians know that Ogbemudia was elected Governor of Bendel (Mid-West became Bendel in 1976) State in 1993. But not many know that Ogbemudia aspired to become President in 1999. When he informed Gen. Ibrahim Babangida that he wanted to run to be president, IBB told him to forget it because the Generals had decided to give it to Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. A realistic Ogbemudia accepted the fact, went to Ota to pledge his loyalty to Obasanjo, dismantled his campaign machinery, and asked his spokesman, Mr. Steve Itugbu, to work with Obasanjo. What if…Ogbemudia had become Nigeria’s President in 1999? May be Nigeria would have become an Eldorado of a nation in terms of development. He had a company that fabricated machinery – just as he set up Bendel Pharmacueticals Company and Wood Works to produce things. In Agbede Cattle Ranch (which came ever before itinerant Fulani cattle herdsmen began clashing with farmers everywhere) , he introduced Bufallo rearing for meat production. No wonder he told someone: “It is a time when there is the need to formulate a National Sports Policy that will clearly draw the line on whether our sports should be for recreation only or for national mobilisation, economic growth and international diplomacy.”
To him, sport was a means to an end, a calculated end! To end the story here is to pretend that Ogbemudia never had his ups and downs. Like other Military Governors, he was swept out of office by the 1975 coup that brought in the Murtala/Obasanjo administration. That day the public looted his poultry in Benin. The Ogbemudia Farms were trashed. When in 1976, a probe panel found him guilty of corruption, newspaper columnists excoriated him. But his rehabilitation was complete when he was elected Governor in 1983; he had been only months in office. Ogbemudia was a man of energy, of foresight, of purpose; a man who raised his state to the highest estate – a man who was never afraid to experiment.
Indeed, this great man which can be regarded as coming ahead of his time has served his state and country creditably. Like a meteor, he came, he saw and he conquered and has gone back to his creator. We long for many Ogbemudias’ to emerge for Nigeria as future leaders of this great country.