"21 Years Ago, I Became An Exile" - Dele Momodu
Fellow Africans, exactly twenty-one years ago, on July 25, 1995, I set forth at dawn. My destination was exile. I needed to dialogue with my feet and escape in a jiffy from my dear beloved country without any prior notice. Nigeria was under a most brutal and brutish military dictatorship. Once you were considered a dissident, you were a target for incarceration or extermination. I still don’t know how my name crawled into the evil register but I was accused of knowing about a pirate radio station, first known as Freedom Radio and later changed to Radio Kudirat. But it was all a cook-up. The long and short of it was that I needed to travel speedily and navigate through the forests of a thousand daemons.
I succeeded in crossing through a smugglers’ route into Cotonou, Benin Republic. I was too scared to stay too long in Cotonou and so decided to meander my way to Lome, Togo. Since I couldn’t speak any smattering of French, my best and ultimate destination was Ghana. I crossed the border at Aflao and waltzed my way to Accra that evening. I was instantly stunned by the peace I found on ground after the fiasco I left behind in Lagos and my young family I was forced to abandon without any chance of negotiation.
President Jerry John Rawlings was in power. He was the dream ruler Nigerians craved. We had been regaled with tales of an audacious revolution. Though many Ghanaians did not fancy his coup and bloodletting propensity, Nigerians felt our country needed such Rawlings’ treatment to teach our corrupt leaders an enduring lesson. I spent the next three nights exploring and plotting my eventual migration to the United Kingdom. I found Ghana very hospitable and discovered the true meaning of Akwaaba!
I departed Ghana on the night of July 28, 1995, and landed at London Gatwick on July 29. Ghana remained permanently etched in my mind. I dreamt of a day I would be able to return to the tranquillity of Accra. I spent the next three years under most excruciation conditions. Exile was not an Eldorado despite the unparalleled hospitality and avuncular protection of the British Government.
It was exile that miraculously gave birth to Ovation International magazine. Time would not permit me to go into the story of its Immaculate Conception (to borrow a popular Catholic expression) and delivery. That is for another day. Our Board decided on a few pertinent projections. We will promote Africa and debunk the malevolent prejudices against our continent. We will celebrate the beauty of Africa and encourage social and business interactions amongst our people. We shall produce a world class magazine that would be the pride of Africans at home and abroad. We decided to concentrate all attention on West Africa before spreading out to other regions. Nigeria and Ghana became our priority countries.
Before my first and forced trip to Ghana, I had encountered the old Gold Coast on the pages of literary works by The Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Kofi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Armah and company. I was particularly enthralled by the seminal work of Nkrumah and the thesis propounded in his book Africa Must Unite. Nkrumah introduced me and got me addicted to pan-Africanism though I had read pan-Africanist and Negritude works by Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Chinweizu, Amilcar Cabral, The Nwalimu Dr Julius Nyerere, Leopold Sedar Senghor and others. I was exceptionally touched by Dr Nkrumah’s vision and was particularly convinced that Africa would never make appreciable progress unless Africans can join hands and lift themselves up.
We decided to expand our operations to Ghana and launched big in Accra. We were delighted to welcome then Senate President of Nigeria Rt. Hon. Adolphus Wabara, then Governor of Lagos State, Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu, and a few of his Commissioners. From the Ghanaian side, we had Hon. Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey of blessed memory, Alhaji Asoma Banda who told us how he got his big break in Nigeria, and so many distinguished personalities. I had met and fallen in love with President John Agyekum Kufuor at Alhaji Banda’s house and decided to support his government. We were more interested in the development and progress of Ghana and not the politics. We invested heavily in Ghana and provided jobs and created employment opportunities for Ghanaian youths like we did in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Pioneers and pathfinders always suffer and indeed we got burnt but remained unbowed. We were ready and determined to raise Africa up. If we couldn’t make sacrifices for our continent why should non-Africans invest in us? Just imagine that not a single Nigerian bank existed at that time in Ghana. Many even thought Nigeria was synonymous with drug-trafficking and obtaining by false pretence (otherwise known as 419) but we changed that ugly narrative by showcasing the great men and women of Nigeria, some of the brightest human beings created by God: Mike Adenuga Jr, Aliko Dangote, Tony Elumelu, Antonio Oladeinde Fernandez, Fifi Ejindu, and showcased their Ghanaian counterparts. This synergy has yielded bountiful harvests. Today, many Nigerian companies are operating in Ghana. Despite occasional skirmishes like husbands and wives do, we have learnt to live together in peace or hurly-burly. We are happy and proud to have made our modest contributions. Ovation has since become one of the biggest Nigerian brands in Ghana today.
It was with great delight that I received a refreshing letter from the University of Professional Studies Accra (UPSA) announcing the award of a Doctorate Degree (honoris causa) to be bestowed on me at the convocation ceremony of the prestigious institution today. I am truly honoured and full of gratitude to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Joshua Alabi and members of the Governing Council of the institution for such a wonderful gesture.
Just a few weeks ago, I visited the university to see things for myself. I was deeply impressed by the great work Professor Alabi and his team have done to sustain and improve the culture of excellence and the quality of professionalism that the institution has become renowned for.
The University of Professional Studies, Accra (UPSA) was founded in 1965 as a private professional business education tuition provider. It was taken over by the government of Ghana in 1978 through the Institute of Professional Studies Decree, 1978 (SMCD 200). It was subsequently established as a tertiary institution with a mandate to provide tertiary and professional education in Accountancy, Management and other related areas of study by the Institute of Professional Studies Act, (Act 566), 1999. The university was the first and is still the only public institution with the mandate to offer both academic degrees and provide training for higher professional education in Ghana.
With an estimated student population of about ten thousand as at 2012, UPSA is fast growing into a world-class institution of knowledge, molding today and tomorrow’s leaders in relevant fields of human endeavor. In 2008, the university received a Presidential Charter, conferring on it the status of a fully- fledged public university. The university offers undergraduate and Master’s degrees in several programmes.
As I inch closer to my conclusion, let me not fail to acknowledge a man whose work as a public servant has deeply inspired not just the people of Ghana but many across the African continent and beyond. I’m talking about no other person but His Excellency, John Dramani Mahama, the President of Ghana. The rare leadership he has provided as President of Ghana continues to illuminate the path of many, breaking borders and charting the course of a new brand of development that is not only excellent but also visible and tangible. His calmness, simplicity, humility, passion and devotion to public service continue to demonstrate the stuff that truly great leaders are made of. History will be kind to him.
Over the past few days, I took some time to reflect deeply on the conferment of this award of an honorary Doctorate Degree by this great institution. A careful observation of the trajectory of my exit from Nigeria to exile in Britain and my passage through the city of Accra over two decades ago is explainable only by what may be described as the unseen but unmistakable hand of destiny. Who would have thought that a journey that began with sadness twenty-one years ago would today crystallise in this rare moment of honour and victory.
To God be all the glory!
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.